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how do i edit thee? let me count the ways.
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)

Eleven years ago, to the week, I wrote my first column for Intrepid Media. (In my head right now you're all applauding. It's like when you come in 1st in Mario Kart.) It was called "Decisions, Decisions" and it had to do with whether I'd made the right call in choosing to go to grad school for journalism. Last year, for my 10th anniversary column, I revisited that question and came away still not 100% certain.

However, as I look back on where I was in November 1999, there is one definite conclusion I have reached: We probably didn't need to be so concerned about the Y2K virus.

Okay, maybe there's more than that. At the time, I was finishing up my degree, working days at a pharmaceutical PR firm that no longer exists, and trying to figure out (read: panicking over) where I was going to be living in 2 months' time. (More or less coincidentally, I wound up finding an apartment literally a block from where I'm living now.)

These days, I know exactly where I'm living in 2 months' time, I'm currently looking at the degree framed on my wall, and I work in pharmaceutical advertising. So things have changed, sort of. As a point of total disclosure, I admit I looked away from the degree to type that sentence.

That said, it's been an oddly circuitous route to get here. I've held 7 jobs in that time (though one of those was part-time while I also worked at the others); every single one since leaving the PR firm was editorial in some respect. Which essentially means that, grad school included, I've been trained in at least 5 different styles of writing, not including whatever style you want to consider this column (have I mentioned I've been doing this for 11 years?), which I like to think is pretty much just my own voice. I also like to think that I'm going to win the lottery someday at a cost of $2 a week, so maybe I'm just deluding myself.

I know you're all asking yourselves, "What writing styles are those, Adam?" Which actually means you're asking me, but I can't hear you since we're not even in the same room. I don't know what you were thinking with that plan.

Regardless, graduate school taught me how to write both the common news story and the features story. I was a B student in both of them. For some reason my leads never really "popped." Two examples:
  • New Yorkers have never done anything on a small scale, including throwing away garbage.
  • A world-famous Jewish philanthropist will become the first Chairman of a new partnership of three major Jewish fund-raising organizations, according to a spokesman for United Jewish Appeal in a press conference yesterday.
Yeah. I was not winning the next Pulitzer.

However, grad school also taught me how to hone my current personal writing style. I started receiving A's when I started writing like this:
Apparently there are a few very important prerequisites to sitting on New York City Community Board Number 2. First, you must really enjoy the sound of people whining. Second, you have to be completely opposed to change of any sort, be it beneficial or not. Third, you must enjoy hearing yourself talk, even if it means missing out on listening to some whining.
Actually, I think that one got me an A+.

The next addition to writing styles I had to learn occurred at a publishing company that would be my employer for the next 7 years. They were trade publishers (as opposed to consumer publishers), focusing on the energy industry. I was hired as a copy editor at the then-unheard of sum of half-a-million dollars. I know. Surprised me, too. Especially when I typed it just now and it turns out to be utterly untrue.

The articles I edited at that job were mostly dry, focusing on such matters as tanker loadings and oil futures. Occasionally, we'd get a juicy story about Russian energy execs being arrested for pretty much political reasons, but those were few and far between. Now, I didn't write them, but I had to edit them (and eventually handle layout for them), and as I got familiar with this style, I found myself also getting familiar with caffeine.

The job that followed, style-wise, was similar in a lot of ways: instead of trade publications on the energy industry, I was editing trade publications on the drug store industry:
Drug maker Savient Pharmaceuticals will begin shipping its treatment for chronic gout to specialty distributors at the end of this month, Savient said.
Again, the style is very cut-and-dried. Sure, it might be interesting to my father, who has gout, but it's news, and news gets delivered in a news-like manner. I suppose one could end the sentence with exclamation points, but that's not really encouraged among serious publishing companies.

During this time, I also began that part-time job mentioned above. And another new style was learned. I had to write and edit multiple-choice questions about TV shows. I know that sounds like another lie, but it's the truth. For 4 years (give or take), I was essentially paid to watch television. And then write/edit questions about it.

There was, as I mentioned above, a definite style to these questions. Rules upon rules upon rules. For example:
1) All answers had to be approximately the same length. Or, conversely, totally different lengths.
2) If one answer contained a proper noun, all answers had to contain a proper noun.
3) All answers had to contain action verbs. Run!
4) All answers had to contain actual words. (This wasn't technically a rule they felt needed spelling out, but I still had to enforce it once when a writer chose to invent the term "pyrogonemic." It's one of the few times in my life when I've looked something up on Google and gotten literally no links.)
Etc. Etc. Etc. I do not miss that job.

Then I found pharmaceutical advertising. Or, rather, Then I found pharmaceutical ADVERTISING!

I think you can see how that works. It's bold; it catches the eye. It makes doctors and patients alike want to come down with something just so they can get the free samples. "I want dry mouth so I can stop wetting the bed!" the public says. "This yellow pill will cure cancer in 60% of my patients and only cause cancer in 10%? Sign me up!" the doctors call. "I want a new drug. One that won't make me sick. One that won't make me crash my car or make me feel three feet thick!" Huey Lewis crooned.

(Disclaimer: in the interest of keeping my job, it should be noted that none of the above statements bears any similarity, real or imagined, to any medication I've ever actually worked on. Really.)

The thing about pharma advertising is that it comes with its own rules, mostly created by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or created by drug companies attempting not to piss off the FDA. I recently saw online a pharmaceutical ad campaign with a tag line something like, "You might not use it this way, but you nearly can." Which, when you really analyze it, says, "We're telling you not to use it this way." Which, when you really analyze it, says, "We don't want to piss off the FDA."

This is also why all those drug ads you see on TV have about 10 seconds of "our drug works for you" followed by 12 minutes of warnings. Breaking down the message: "Our drug has been proven to work, but we don't want to piss off the FDA." And I don't blame them. I actually respect the job the FDA does, which is pretty much trying to avoid having Americans die. This is a cause I can get behind. In fact, unless you're Rand Paul, regulation can be pretty nifty.

For example, raise your hands if, thanks to the FDA, you now know that a 4-hour erection is a bad thing. That's what I'm talking about.

(I so hope you raised your hand.)

In addition to monitoring the language on the client's behalf - another important note is that most drugs don't "cure" you, they "can help cure" you - medical editors (for that's what I am) also play by a set of rules laid down in the American Medical Association Manual of Style, or "AmMedAssManSty" for short.

The AMA style guide contains pages and pages and pages and pages and pages and pages and pages of useful information for medical editors, such as whether to place a footnote symbol inside or outside a colon (inside) and the real difference between "further" and "farther" (there is one). The AMA style guide is also decidedly anti-period; among those abbreviations for which we constantly have to be vigilant: vs, Dr, etc, ie, eg, Inc, Co, AmMedAssManSty.

I'm pretty sure that lack of period after abbreviations drove the proofreaders (not to be confused with medical editors) at my last job pretty batty. Though they were a little batty to begin with.

Anyway, that's what I've been doing the last 11 years. From classroom to trade to pharma (with a little multiple choice thrown in). Disparate styles for disparate fields. Each new job a learning experience. Which is why I forgot your birthday. Sorry about that.

So for those of you who are still reading this (I think most people probably checked out long before "4-hour erection"), thanks for indulging me - not just this month for my personal look back on writing styles (it sounded so much less boring when I first thought of it, three hours ago) - but for indulging me every month. It's been a good 11 years, and I look forward to a good 11 more. And, just to whet your appetite for year 12, I am willing to reveal that a beloved character from my columns will die sometime in the coming months.

Oh, and I totally made up "AmMedAssManSty." No one, to my knowledge, has ever, ever called it that. And lying to you just isn't my style.


A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

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