David R. Henderson  

My Writing Tutor: Dan Seligman

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Last month, I told the first part of the story about Dan Seligman, the Fortune editor who taught me so much about writing. I promised to tell the second part. Here it is.

To recall, Dan had asked me to tell him whether I thought Arjo Klamer's 1983 book, Conversations with Economists, was worth reviewing. I took it home with me and read it the next day. I had a strong incentive to say yes even if it wasn't worth reviewing, but, fortunately, I thought it was. I told him that, and we agreed on a deadline--about 3 weeks hence--and a price, $1,500.

In the next 2 weeks, I went though multiple drafts and finally had something I thought worth submitting. I sent it to him. Recall that this was during an era when fax machines weren't that common and so I either mailed it to him, or, more likely, Fed Exed it to him.

A few days later, his edit of my piece arrived by Fed Ex. I opened it up delightedly, looking forward to his improvements on my piece.

I was shocked. He hadn't just drastically rearranged the paragraphs. He had rewritten every paragraph. Not a sentence in it was mine. And this was a 1,500-word review. It would be an underestimate to say that it felt as if I had been punched in the stomach; it felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach 10 times.

I sat there in shock, not knowing what to do. I wanted to call Dan and tell him that he was free to publish the review as his because there was none of me in it. But I remembered that we were moving to Monterey in a few months, where the cost of living was higher, that we had just bought a new car for my wife and had payments to make, and that we had our daughter Karen on the way, due in December. We needed that money. And we needed for me to establish a relationship with Dan so that I could do a few reviews a year and we could ultimately afford to buy a house in Monterey.

What to do?

I called up Paul Weaver, who was the Washington Bureau Chief for Fortune and who also had hooked me up with Fortune for my Myth of MITI article. He was a friend and so I knew I could level with him. I told him what had happened. He chuckled and said (if I recall correctly), "You've been Seligmaned."

"What?", I asked.

"Dan is known for heavily editing people and substituting his voice for theirs," answered Paul.

That actually did make me feel a little better. But not much better. I told him that I was tempted to call Dan and tell him that it was his article.

"If you do that, it's unlikely that he'll ask you to do more book reviews," said Paul.

I knew that was likely true.

So I put the edit aside, got back to work at my day job with the Council of Economic Advisers, and picked it up again and reread it at the end of the day, comparing it to my original.

That's when I saw it. Dan Seligman had done two things. First, he had added some zing. My review was very good writing for that of an economist, but that was not a high bar. Second, he had solved problems in my writing that I hadn't even noticed--added context, got rid of ambiguities, etc. He had just done it in a heavy-handed way.

I thought: I could learn a lot about writing from Dan Seligman; he's one of the best in the business and he's paying me really well so that he can teach me. So I made some changes to get a little of my voice back, and sent it off.

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I remember about 8 or 9 months later, when I had done my 4th review for him (I was now in Monterey), calling him on the phone to go over an edit, and saying to him, "Dan, you actually left one paragraph almost untouched."

He replied, "You're getting better."


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Emerich writes:

I subscribed to Fortune just for Seligman, glancing at the rest of the magazine as an afterthought. He was not only a joy to read, he was defiantly un-PC. I hope you have that original draft and his re-write. I for one, would love to see what he did.

So will your next book be titled: "Sentence by Sentence: What Dan Seligman Taught Me about How to Write Public-Policy Economics"?

I need it.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Emerich,
Like you, I turned first to Keeping Up when my issue arrived in the mail. And I did save the draft and his rewrite. The problem: it burned in my fire in 2007.
@Richard O. Hammer,
Do it bit by bit. Write regularly, talk out loud while you’re writing, make sure you don’t leave the reader in suspense, always keep in mind a realistic image of what your reader knows. Those are 4 right there.

Emerich writes:

What a loss for the MS to have been consumed in a fire. I just checked on Amazon and couldn't find a volume of collected essays by him. Would they be too dependant on the news of the moment to be of continuing interest, I wonder?

Floccina writes:

I could use a Dan Seligman.

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