Tag Archives: Foreign Service

calm, but tense

One of the best lessons I learned in the Foreign Service was to build confidence in the words you chose, but never fall in love with them.

You can’t just “have confidence” — you have to build it through self-editing, re-reading, questioning, tinkering, playing, and allowing patience to bring you the right word or phrase (I once wrote a classified cable on prostitution in the United Arab Emirates and loaded it with a double entendre and allusion in every paragraph, but that took weeks and weeks to write…hey, nothing urgent or newsworthy about it, after all). So you build confidence, but you never love what you wrote because someone else (with the power to edit or influence to quash) will hate it or change it or eliminate your poetry and replace “happy” with “glad” or decide to describe a scene as “calm, but tense.”

And that lesson was reinforced with blunt force every day I spent as the Editor on the Watch, reading aloud one page of summarized news and context for review, editing, and rejection by six of the smartest colleagues in government (don’t laugh, there are some wicked smart people in government – that bar for “smartest” is higher than you think). Yes, its possible to spend four hours distilling a world’s worth of news into one page only to be told your priorities are wrong, your sources are weak, and your writing sucks. And then take that feedback and spend the next hour crafting something worthy of the Secretary of State’s time (in theory….I can’t recall her coming onto the Watch to praise us for our writing…or even our telephone operator abilities. Maybe Madeleine had other things to do). If you can write on the Watch, you can write.

And you can take editing and critical feedback from anyone.

So here’s hoping I don’t regret my decision to go from no one editing my work to many critical eyes and minds. If I do, it won’t be from lack of confidence or love of my own words, but something else….