Letting go of great tape hurts inside, but sometimes you have to do it.
There’s a famous, or rather, infamous sign pinned to a wall inside the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. It’s a picture of three cute little puppies. But their heads are encircled by the crosshairs of what I can only assume is some sort of high-powered rifle, maybe a 30-ought-six.
Below the picture it reads, “You know what you have to do.”
It’s a reminder that you have to shoot your puppies. You have to excise incredible tape full of character, soul, or some great potential. You do it in every story you produce. You do it to serve the higher cause: the story arc. And also the highest cause: the listener.
But it’s hard. It’s gut wrenching. Sometimes you do everything to keep the puppies in your story. You argue, cajole, and sweet-talk your editor. You even restructure your entire script to fit them in (I once wasted a weekend in NYC doing this…). You convince yourself the special moment will be worth it.
But somewhere in your gut, you know you’re in denial. No matter the beauty, the emotion, or the incomparable pleasure they provide your ears, they ring discordant or they interrupt the flow. The tape needs to go.
You know what you have to do.
You have to shoot your puppies.
An easy 4-step guide to help you pull the trigger.
Step-One: Admit you’re a hoarder.
That’s really what puppies are about: Hoarding.
Everything you place in the first draft, or drafts, of a story means something. It’s the best of the raw tape and reporting in one giant collection. It’s the stuff you slaved over to get, all the fabulous and emotional moments of tears, frustration, growth and joy, the moments that brood, bite, lecture and shout, and of course, present the boundless potential of your story.
When you’re this deep into the first draft of the story, you can’t help but look at all the puppies side by side and convince yourself the story is a masterpiece, a whole new breed of narrative that will wow the audio snobs at Third Coast.
Yet when you reach this place, it’s time to take a step back and look at it from the outside. Just prepare yourself to see what you don’t want to see: an overstuffed cage that’s starting to smell.
Step-two: Become an assassin.
Jason Bourne didn’t kill Carlos the Jackal by allowing his henchmen to live. He did it by being a cold-blooded badass. Ending a life for him was about as eventful as a night spent watching HGTV with the missus.
Thankfully, you do not need to be Jason Bourne to shoot your puppies.
But you do need some ice to run in your veins. It’s important to train yourself to look at the bigger picture: the story. When you look at the overall structure, and not just a piece of tape, it’s easier to cut.*
Think of it like pruning a rose bush. The prettiest bloom isn’t perfect if it’s growing in the wrong place.
So true. Prune those bushes, but also...
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Step Three: Admit you’re not a very good assassin on your own.
Everyone needs an editor. Gay Talese has an editor. Tracy Kidder has an editor. And for the younger generation, Gus Garcia-Roberts has an editor.
Editors are good assassins. They spend their days trimming and tightening the noose on puppies. The very best don’t even stop and appreciate how cute your puppies look. They view them as mere words and tape that get in the way.
Special note: most editors are very busy people. And sometimes they cut something you really find important. What to do? Fight. A good back and forth can produce better work. Just know when to pick your fights. Arguing about an edit for a 45-second spot isn’t worth it. Arguing on a longer, more complex story is often critical.
Step Four: Create a Pound.
You don’t really have to shoot your puppies. You can take them to the pound.
Keep a folder on your external hard drive and title it, “Pound.” Put all your puppies in this folder. Tell them they’ll have a good life someday, and close the folder. Wash your hands of the guilt.
Periodically, you can put headphones on and spend the night visiting the pound. (I do this one or two times a year. I find it similar to flipping through old photo albums.)
And on the rare occasion, you might just find a puppy that deserves a home.
The following story, Buddy and Rose, was a puppy I pulled from the pound. I pitched it to PRX and WCAI, who both aired it on Valentine’s Day. It’s an example of why I love radio. You can always find ways to use discarded tape.
And it makes the puppy shooting… slightly more bearable.
Note: The music in this piece is by Hello Mnt from Portland, Oregon.
*You didn’t think I had to shoot puppies is this essay? Right… Here’s one that I shot.
The two most common doomed-but-in-denial puppies are:
1. The “I went to great lengths to get it” puppy.
2. The “super emotional” puppy.
Why they need to go:
- People do plenty of work to put together a radio story. And sometimes we go to great lengths to get a piece of tape. We sacrifice a ton of hours, get people to repeat their answers over and over again, and spend money few of us in public radio can afford. To quote Doctor Phil: tough shit. The tape should only go in the story if the story needs it.
- You want to include the best tape in all your stories. But sometimes, super emotional tape can distract from the overall story. The emotional moments need to be used judiciously, and be built up if you want a good emotional payout. Use them like you would saffron in a stew.