How Bill Walsh influenced me from afar

I didn’t know Bill Walsh personally. I didn’t even know he was sick until I saw his obituary from his employer, The Washington Post. But he was and is a critical influence on how I edit and, importantly, how I think about editing.

I think I’m unlike a lot of copy editors (if I can still call myself one after being more of a line and story editor for the past 6 years) in that I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of grammar rules and constructs. I couldn’t teach a workshop on the background of tenses, or participles, or singular-plural.

What I do know is how to use these things, how to read sentences with a reader’s perspective and how to edit and rewrite, when necessary, with consideration for the audience’s expectations and the writer’s voice. Grammar and style rules matter to me, but only to the point in which they serve the outcomes. Little annoys me more as an editor than a change made because of blind adherence to style that results in bad or stupid copy.

Anyways, there are a number of key influencers to my approach. The first, I suppose, is my mother, who encouraged me to read, and read nearly everything. Reading, as many writers and editors will tell you, is how you learn about words and language.

In college, I was tremendously fortunate to take a copy-editing class with John McIntyre, then and now (with a hiatus) of The Sun in Baltimore. In the following years, I benefited from the guidance of the incredible and robust copy staff of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the editor and managing editors at The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y., and the fellow who hired me at SmartBrief, Steve Masters.

All of them are strong technical editors, and that was helpful. But what I believe I learned most from them, and why I’m eventually getting to Bill Walsh, is that each of those editors took time to say why something was as it was. Or, why an error or oversight was a problem. Or, why something was really good or smart. In short, they were teaching critical thinking and contextual thinking as much as spelling, grammar and style.

Walsh’s “Lapsing Into A Comma” was the best print distillation of all that advice that I’ve come across, and while I hadn’t read it in years until this past week, it has never left me. Right in Chapter 1:

What I’m saying is that it’s relatively easy to pick a stylebook, any stylebook, and learn the rules it imposes. It’s harder still to truly understand the reasons behind the rules — and therefore know when they should be ignored.

Walsh’s influence on me was more than just philosophical. He’s why I hyphenate so much (albeit a bit less these days), because of his insistence on the importance of hyphenations to sentence logic and structure. The famous “orange-juice salesman” example has never left my mind.

To hyphenate well is to think deeply about the words as they are individually and how they work collectively, to think about whether the sentence structure works and whether it really works as a readable sentence people want to deal with. And this mindset, used well, helps others be better, too. As Linda Holmes wrote:

What a great copy editor is instead, and what Bill Walsh was to me, is both that exacting crafter of print at the atomic level and a final eye for good sense. He says in Lapsing Into a Comma that every newsroom needs someone juvenile enough to know which headlines shouldn’t have words like “blow” and “stiff” in them.

Not everything Walsh wrote was gospel. He was losing the argument about “email” versus “e-mail” even as “Lapsing Into A Comma” was being published, and a re-read of it today shows people don’t even consider the debate anymore, even if he was correct on style guides’ remarkable inconsistency (hello, AP). But do revisit the chapter, if for nothing else that the reference to “an AltaVista search of the Web” from before AltaVista was a “Parks & Recreation” gag.

Of course, I cannot forget that I’m writing this because Walsh died, and that he died at only 55. Those of us merely influenced from afar can only decry the years taken away from him; I can only imagine what this has been like for those close to him.

One small comfort is that Walsh has left us a legacy in his writing and in the people he’s influenced. These people are, in small and large ways, helping us communicate better with each other. If we can understand each other, then we can start to work and build together — to leave something better than what we found. Every thoughtful edit along the way matters.

Walsh did all he could, and now the rest is up to us.



What I wrote (and didn’t write) in 2015

I didn’t write as much as I hoped to this year. Part of this was being on a federal grand jury, part of it was having the flu twice (yes, really). But part of it was just not setting aside the mental space. I will be working on the latter in 2016.

What do I want to write about that’s not about work? That’s a good question. What gets me excited, and where can I contribute something original and thoughtful? There are a couple of ideas, and more reflection may light the way.

All that said, I still did do some writing, mostly at my Leadership blog I run for SmartBrief:

And one of those pieces will be part of a great free series David Burkus is running called “New Year, New Leader.” I’m humbled to be part of this group of 16 (more) accomplished people, and I hope my advice has some practicality for those of us not in the “leadership space.”

So, that’s my year. Looking next year to write more, intelligently and thoughtfully, while maintaining perspective.


Truth and lies and faulty memories and Brian Williams

My mind was boggled to hear Brian Williams could think he was in a helicopter that was under attack and forced to make a landing when, in fact, he was in a different helicopter right behind it that didn’t come under attack.

I might have thought, did he misspeak? Is he being defamed, even, however unlikely that would be? But when I heard the news, it was because Williams was apologizing. OK, then. That’s a weird thing to get wrong, and in that way, but maybe, perhaps, his memory betrayed him amid the nerves and rush of that day.

Brian Williams (Wikipedia via David Shankbone)
Brian Williams (Wikipedia via David Shankbone)

Then, we learn, he was in a helicopter that came in behind the one that took fire, but the aircraft with Williams on it came in as much as an hour later.

That’s even worse. Williams is still misremembering, or badly wrote his apology. And that’s the best-case scenario. 

But wait, the pilot also remembered things similarly to Williams. Until he didn’t.

All this is bad, perhaps even a firing offense. In Williams’ defense, he has apologized, and theoretically, there could be enough ambiguity — his frail memory, a possibility some of the soldiers involved misremembering aspects — to allow Williams and his career to limp onward. No more “SNL” appearances, perhaps, but the anchor desk could remain his. There’s also the practical matter of NBC having no succession plan and owing Williams a lot of money.

But what kind of career would that be? Should we really be, in effect, saying, “Brian Williams is fine to remain the face of a news-gathering operation as long as we don’t ask him to ever recount his experiences more than a few days after they happen”?

I don’t believe this is a three-strikes-and-you’re-out situation. We might disagree on what categorizes a “minor” mistake of a journalist, or what is a correctable error of judgment versus a character flaw, but we can all acknowledge that those categories exist. We can also acknowledge that people will do things because of personal problems and addictions, and those infractions deserve accountability but also empathy and assistance. But Williams’ situation doesn’t appear to meet any of those standards.

Even under a best-case scenario, the faulty memory and all that, we have evidence of a lack of care, a hubris, an aversion to fact-checking and detail, and an understandable-yet-controllable urge to be the hero. My goodness, he basically runs NBC News — all he’d have to say before going on an NBC program, or Letterman, or Alec Baldwin’s radio show is, “Interns, can you help double-check my memory on this one? I’m proud of my work covering the war in Iraq but because I admire those veterans so much, I don’t want to get it wrong.”

Does that mean Brian Williams can’t have any type of career? Well, practically speaking, even if he’s fired today, he’ll land on his feet. Plenty of people have done way worse but are brought back because, as Bill Burr says, “[Y]ou just sit there and wait for the phone to ring because you know you can make people money.”

Look, Williams’ talent is not strictly about news-gathering and reporting. There are lots of other jobs out there for having a great voice, hair and looks while lacking any ability to recall vivid personal memories correctly. Hell, being a talk show or radio host might really be better for him. He’s a moderator, a host, a facilitator. And there’s a place for that. Maybe just not on NBC Nightly News.

Why does this matter for me, or for you? Because if your job projects, “Listen to me, I’ll tell you what you need to know,” you need to be honest  and fair and forthright and, when you inevitably are wrong or rash or mean, to recover and fix your mistakes. 

This is a journalism crisis, but it’s also a leadership crisis. We’ll be repeating Williams’ hubris if we don’t hold ourselves to account in our own lives, in our own organizations and with the people around us.


“How you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live”

I don’t watch SportsCenter all that often anymore, and not the late-night editions, which is where Stuart Scott was more in recent years.

But, like so many others, I grew up on SportsCenter, remember when espn2 was the edgy, lowercase station, and yet am young enough to not remember an ESPN without Stuart Scott. He was so good, funny and smooth, that it wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate him — rather, he was so ubiquitous, so definitively the best mix of catchphrase, information and poise that Scott became part of the foundation, the permanence, of ESPN to me.

You knew it was a big occasion when Stuart Scott was on the screen. You knew the broadcast was going to be smart, funny and sharp.

I knew he had cancer, knew he was on the downslide. How can you not be after so many years, so many re-occurrences, when you aren’t on the air for months and on-air talent publicly asks you to keep fighting? But it was still a shock, even to colleagues who had pre-taped tributes. And so it was to many of us.

When a guy like Scott — so talented, driven, giving, beloved and courageous — goes so early, he is rightly mourned, remembered and missed. What also should happen, and what I think he got all of us ready for, is to not think that, just because Scott was this tremendous all-around human being, that we can’t be at least a little like him.

Maybe we won’t be at the top of our field, or a mentor to colleagues and strangers, or parents at all. God willing, we’ll never have to be so strong and inspiring in the face of life-threatening illness. But those traits of Scott are not superhuman, or attainable only through narrow circumstances or under duress. They are all reachable by us, if we decide we want to pursue them.

These are but some inadequate words about a guy I never met, but he’s already reminded me to keep fighting, no matter what the obstacles, big or small. I hope I’ll do as much.


The challenge of challenging yourself

Photo by Mapoula/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Mapoula/iStock / Getty Images

Forecasting is a fool’s game, but let’s assume that I’m in a decent position for 2015: I like my job and city, am liked back, and my personal life is mildly together.

But I don’t feel terribly put-together. Perhaps more accurately, I feel like there is a disconnect, at times, between the scrutiny I place on myself and what others place on me. So what am I going to do about it? This is a challenge that no one will place on me, but I have to place on myself. No one will track my progress or call me out for slippage; again, that’s on me.

So, what’s to be done about it? What should I be working on, discussed now because of the convenient celestial occurrence of the beginning of the “year” that we observe on this planet.

  • Write more. This is an easy one. Even if it’s simply writing here, for an audience of near-nil, the practice and thought-processing should be a good thing. But there are other opportunities. Which leads to No. 2:
  • Step out of my comfort zone. At work, in life, do things I don’t feel I am fully proficient at; do things I’m not fully at ease with; do things that carry risk. Don’t be reckless or unethical, obviously; rather, be a bit more alive.
  • Take care of yourself. Sleep, fitness, etc. All the selfish things with long-term benefits. But also, be more to others. Communicate more. Send notes, perhaps even handwritten ones. At the least, do more to be in touch with people, professionally or personally. Especially the latter.

I’m sure there’s more to be done. And I’m not devoid of the above qualities. But this is a start of doing more. I hope.


Why you shouldn’t assume money won’t motivate

Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

How many workers are going around, saying, “You know, I don’t need any more money”? Only a few of us since the recession. And as employment has returned,wages have struggled to keep pace.

Money alone is insufficient to motivate employees, the popular literature says. There is more to a happy, productive employee than compensation, so explore those other paths. This is correct as far as it goes — and I’m in agreement with Dan PinkBut I think many of us make an incorrect assumption — that we already, in Pink’s words, “pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table” for talented, high-potential employees.

So let’s undo that assumption. Instead, ask, “Where is our organization impeding the progress of talented, ambitious people — thus underpaying them and creating a dual risk to retention and morale?”

Why that question? These talented and ambitious employees are probably worth more money (their performance recommends it and such people are difficult to replace) but easy to miss because they lack the right job title of higher-paid co-workers, often through no one’s fault. And, when you have a group of employees feeling underpaid and constrained on opportunity, you have a retention and morale crisis waiting to happen.

Fulfillment, progress, development and opportunity are crucial to employee happiness, productivity and retention. The forms those conditions take depend on the situation, of course, but I’m not going to get into those today. Instead, let start with this quote from Fast Company:

“People work because they need to make a living. However, if people are paid enough to take money issues off the table, they’ll be able to focus on the work and find the best solutions, which results in higher performance.”

No disagreement there. And, to make clear that the burden for development and opportunity is not just on employees, this quote from SmartBrief contributor Mary Jo Asmus:

“If your employees are making a good, competitive wage and are doing work they enjoy, it only makes sense for you to listen beyond the requests they make for money and promotions to figure out what really brings out their best work. “

That also makes sense. Now let’s consider the following employee story:

  • Skilled at the work, bolstered by initial and continuing training.
  • Has taken and succeeded with greater responsibilities, project oversight, etc.
  • Works well with co-workers in and out of the department.
  • The path forward (and/or upward) is blocked.

That last point is what I’m getting at. This worker is good at the job, takes initiative, and contributes in ways measurable and intangible. This person has relative autonomy, is encouraged to offer ideas and insights, is respected and is a part of the company’s vision.


But without an obvious path of advancement, what are this worker’s options?

  1. Try to do more with the current job.
  2. Try a different job at the company, assuming there are openings or the possibility to create a job description.
  3. Find another job.
  4. Hope the roadblocks clear (a superior leaving or being fired, most likely).

Each of these options, I believe, has distinct drawbacks.

The first option should always be tried, but its effect is likely to be limited if said employee is already exploring greater responsibility, autonomy and/or opportunity in the current role without much of a corresponding increase in compensation. At worst, the employee may feel taken advantage of — doing the work of a higher-paying job without the benefits.

The second option is enticing and should also be explored, but not everyone can craft a job out of thin air, get it approved, perform well at it and get more money for doing so. And the risk-versus-reward calculation will not always just justify this step. Here are a few questions to ask if you’re at this point.

The third option could be great for the worker but seems to offer little for the company. Losing great people because you’re blocking them is essentially rewarding stasis and a “getting in the door first” mentality. Sure, job-hopping is a modern reality, and many people “graduate” out of jobs and organizations. But, obviously, people should leave your company to pursue great or new opportunities, not because they are trapped.

The fourth option can be the most dangerous for the organization, because the best-case scenario is having an unambitious employee who will continue doing the work without scheming, complaining or leaving. Such a worker won’t deserve more money, but also won’t grow professionally or help your organization meet new challenges.

So back to our difficult question: “Where is our organization impeding the progress of talented, ambitious people — thus underpaying them and creating a dual risk to retention?”

Better pay isn’t the final answer, but in many cases it can be an acknowledgement of an employee’s success — a temporary motivator, but one that encourages further development and effort even if promotion or being granted greater authority isn’t yet possible.

So, how do you determine which of your people deserve and require this step?

Here’s the tricky part — there isn’t an easy answer. And you may not be ready to even address the question.

If you’re not aware of how people are performing, what their abilities and potential are, and what they wish to achieve, you can’t begin to answer that question. If your organization has no ability to compensate outside of a rank/longevity formula, you can’t begin to answer that question. If your organization hasn’t begun to think about career pathing, you can’t begin to answer that question.

Financially, improving compensation for people down the ladder can be a risk. How much is enough money? A surprisingly difficult question. Are some of these people genuinely unhappy or just playing you for more money? Good for those people, by the way, but that won’t always fit with an organization’s plans.

Most importantly, I think, there will be mistakes. Tackling that question is risky, can lead to hurt feelings and, inevitably, a misjudgment or two. So, are you or your organization prepared for moments of failure?

Thanks for reading this far. This is a difficult issue that’s been on my mind for months, and this post is far from the end of the conversation. I’m open to suggestions, both on tackling this question and, more importantly, if you think my premise is wrong. Leave a note in the comments or e-mail me.

And, while I have you, please consider SmartBrief’s daily e-mail newsletter on leadership and management, which I edit.


What I’ve written lately

I’m mostly doing interviews of small-business owners for SmartBrief, and here are those and other stuff I’ve done recently:


A few things I’ve written (and been quoted in) lately

I haven’t been up to a ton of writing, but I’ve not been inactive. Here’s what I’ve done in the past couple of months:

I also was very fortunate to be interviewed by Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak for two recent posts:

Leadership Freak · smartbrief · writing

A few things I’ve written (and been quoted in) lately

I haven’t been up to a ton of writing, but I’ve not been inactive. Here’s what I’ve done in the past couple of months:

I also was very fortunate to be interviewed by Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak for two recent posts:


The JFK assassination and when events fade from memory into history

“It was a day I recall vividly like it was yesterday. We were, that
very day, discussing the three branches of government (at a Miami high
school) and the role of the President. I was making allusions to
President Kennedy and the things he was doing when the announcement came
over the speaker that he had been shot.
“I remember walking over
to a window and standing and staring out the window for an extended
period of time. No one said anything. It was completely silent. I
remember then telling the students, ‘You will always remember this
moment because what has just happened is one of the most momentous
events in the history of this nation.”
–James A. Fleming,
superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District, who was a
20-year-old teacher at the time of the assassination (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 1993)

On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, my thoughts turn to two decades earlier, the 30th anniversary.

What I recall is reading, as a 10-year-old, the newspapers in 1993 on the living-room floor. JFK’s death was more visceral then, with conspiracy wars raging and many of the directly affected still alive, such as Jackie and both their children. Hell, WWII was still a living feature — the AP had a daily info box about “What happened 50 years ago today in WWII.” I wish I could find evidence of these articles outside my mind.

The main thing that stuck with me from those 30th anniversary articles I read at home was a section about how the event was fading from public memory and into history, as even then fewer than half of Americans living in 1993 were alive in 1963. The shift from present to past was already occurring.

On the 50th anniversary of significant events, there is more of a distance, but most of us still know someone who was involved or who at least was a living observer. From them, we get recollections not only about that day but about what has changed since. Those people are often elderly but remain active, robust representatives of the event and the times, much like Pearl Harbor or D-Day veterans at their 50th anniversary events.The Gettysburg 50th anniversary reunion best reflects this:

But after 50 years, for whatever reason, the anniversaries become a curio, more of a “Oh, hey, some of them are alive!” than a true gathering of principals to remember and reflect. In the end, the events are encapsulated and lived through the last survivors to tell their stories — and those of a generation — one last time.

The JFK assassination has none of the joy or accomplishment that other anniversaries have, and so its movement from current event to historical occurrence will likely go unmourned. Many of JFK’s advisers and confidantes are long dead. But moving past 50 years on is a significant shift nonetheless. The veterans of the Civil War, for instance, used to be more than black-and-white or sepia-toned poses, more than documents or Ken Burns-panned letters.We can still get close to what they went through, but only so close. The same for World War I and, soon, World War II.

And, hard as it is may be to comprehend, 9/11 will one day be that thing that happened to other people.

What is the upside of time fading into memory? Perhaps it’s that we can better evaluate when we gain distance. We can appreciate what we have now that’s better and work to recapture whatever we’ve lost from those times. In the case of Kennedy’s death, we can be grateful that his event is so singular because it hasn’t been repeated. Let us embrace the obsession over the Kennedys and their lives and deaths if it means not having a fresher wound than Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.