On editing and [redacted]

Designers took a range of approaches in imagining a cover for the Mueller Report (were it ever to be published).
Designers reimagine the covers for the Mueller Report. Credit: The New Yorker

I’m currently proofing and copyediting two chapters of my thesis that I have spent writing for the past 2-3 weeks. During this stage, I could hear myself sometimes going between, “Did I really write that? That’s smart!” or “Did I really write that? What was I thinking?!” I always am slow when it comes to writing but I really love proofing stage, because this means I have finally gotten around to write, so it’s sort of an achievement. Also, whatever sucky things I have written before is finally going to take shape, and I am in charge of it.

My writing process for a chapter of about 40 pages, depending on its complexity, often works like this:

  • Writing: 1-3 weeks (depending on the complexity of the chapter)
  • Proofing & copyediting: 3 days (at most) following writing
  • Revising: 1-2 weeks
  • Final proofing & citation crosschecking: 1 week

This means, it could take 2 months for a whole clean draft of a chapter to be sent to my supervisor for review.

I usually have 2-4 rounds of this stage until I revise, and I am still in the first round. This means that my papers are still now heavily scrawled with corrections, written in the margins with notes (sometimes, a bit too brutal ones too) to myself. To be honest, I feel tad guilty about printing out the chapters on papers so I could proof and edit them, but I find it is much easier to scan and gloss over the whole picture (flow of writing, narrative, tone, repetition etc.) that I might have missed while hunching down at my table writing them.​​

I am sure I have mentioned before, but I have taken to listening to podcasts while doing data analysis or sometimes while just idling around in my home office. The topic about editing reminds me of this one episode from Song Exploder, where they invited Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to talk about their creative process while creating the song The Lovers. They mentioned that artists often have to balance between two modes of working: creative vs editorial mode. In creative mode, you just create things and do not have to worry whether it will turn out good. Once you have created enough and switched to editorial mode, this is where you would go back to take a look at your work, and edit, amend, and add things accordingly.

I found that in order to switch to editorial mode from creative mode, in context of my thesis, is that I would usually let the writing sit in a day at most before I would delve in it again. Otherwise, my brain is still very much engrossed in what I have written a few hours before, that I could not zoom out and get a bigger perspective. (Note: I am not sure why I need to justify this, but currently I am only self-editing for thesis drafts. I will be sending final copies to be proofread by professional copyeditors — who is not me.)

Also, as I edited and saw some passages heavily redacted, I was reminded of the infamous Mueller report — and this article about the history of redacted documents. Sharing some good passages here:

Redacted documents invoked our paranoia even more:

While the literal act of redaction attempts to extract information and eradicate meaning, the black marker actually transforms the way we read these documents, sparking curiosity and often stirring skeptical, critical, and even cynical readings. As redacted government documents make their way from government bureaus into the hands of citizens, a peculiar transformation seems to take place, one that seems to create a paranoia within reason.

Regardless of the intention behind re­daction, the black marks created as a result of bureaucratic operating procedure have become an icon and ­index of paranoia. In other words, although the law intended to ­negate or eradicate meaning through redaction, the documents produced instead have contributed to a paranoid cosmology, a web of virtually uncon­trollable interpretations and revisions that operates parallel to official interpretations of government secrecy. In this completely reasonable yet paranoid world, black marker redaction can imply many things, from the repression of truth to the romance and mystery of government secrecy.

… and even increased our curiosity about what got redacted, what they are actually hiding from us:

While words are intended to deliver truth to us, what happens when words get redacted? Not just deleted, but blacked out, crossed out, or scratched out? The word is gone, but the form remains. There’s a big difference between deletion and redaction. With deletion, a reader never knows that they couldn’t know what they never read, saw, or heard. But with redaction, they are fully aware that they can’t know something that actually does exist. The black marks are mocking us, telling us that we do not have the right or the security clearance to deal with this information.

It becomes clear upon reflection that redaction is a game of interpretation. And what’s potentially so fascinating about this game is not just speculating on the heinous acts covered up, but recognizing that the possibilities of redaction are not endless. The context of a particular document, paragraph, or sentence circumscribes the text underneath. Redaction only covers a finite space. We could narrow down the options by looking at how much space is blacked out, assuming that the entire page uses the same font and font size. Is the blacked-out word a country or a place? It can’t be Turkmenistan—too long. India, maybe? Could that fit? Or Japan? USSR could work, but did they usually use Soviet Union? Suddenly the reader is lured into a hangman game of the government’s making, trying to understand its vernacular, its shorthand codes, and its esoteric notations.

Also, TIL government redactors don’t actually use black markers!

Before FOIA officers would begin to redact sections of a document—and admittedly nowadays many of them opt for computerized forms of redaction because they are working on computer records—they make a photocopy of the document. Then, they take a red or brown marker and, more or less, highlight the segments unfit for access. Running this red marker redacted document through a photo­copy machine set for high contrast produces a new document with black marks. The FOIA officer can then store the red marker document in the ­agency’s files, allowing other bureaucrats to see exactly what has been redacted. If a black marker was used, then anyone needing to revisit the document would be unable to see what had been redacted without arduously comparing the document with the original, side by side.

(P/s: Also, designers are asked to design a cover for Mueller report. Some of them are gems.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s