These are three professions that anyone you meet will feel perfectly comfortable talking about how you are doing it wrong and what they would do better.
Can you imagine telling a dentist how they didn’t fill a cavity as well as they should have? When you think about it though, the pantheon of dentists surely includes the same range of talent and skill that any other profession has. There are bad dentists out there, but who the hell would know the difference until he has a cavity filled and loses his sense of taste for a month? (Doing fine now, thanks.)
Anyway, writers exist as a subset of artists in my theory. I found out this fact soon after starting my first grown-up post-college job as a journalist in small town Minnesota. People delightfully renamed our “Daily Journal” the “Daily Urinal.”
They loved pointing out the typos in the newspaper. I feel lucky that I got out before anonymous online comments on articles became a thing that was acceptable.
Anytime I was criticized by a language maven about a spelling error in the paper, I would hand that person a copy and say, “Please find every typo and misprint on the front page in 3 minutes.” That’s how much time I had to proof the front page in the morning. Usually I would get it from the editor with a “just check the headlines” as direction. (I didn’t really hand them a paper and say that. That would be a rather jerky thing to do.)
And to some degree the paper earned that reputation. I heard the story after I left of the photographer who took pictures of a llama visiting a school. The owner had some difficulty getting the llama back on the trailer and they ran that shot. The next day the owner visited the paper to complain that the picture wan’t representative of llamas, who aren’t ordinarily stubborn. In my mind, that means they shouldn’t publish pictures of houses on fire, since houses aren’t ordinarily on fire. But, the paper ran a correction the next day anyway.
How this bleeds into job hunting
Although I got out of straight-up journalism; this has continued in one form or another. I can name at least three people reading this that will be dying to point out the misplaced semicolon in the previous sentence. (Gotcha!) It’s the type of move that people make to feel better about themselves, and they do it with politics, teaching and arts. Pointing out their own grammar mistakes in the note they sent you about grammar mistakes can be cathartic, but it does nothing helpful. Maybe I’m a bit odd in this forgiving view of typos, since I had to learn to see past so many as a freshman composition instructor in order to focus on the content of the student papers to help them better explore their ideas. Language acquisition, mavens and more are a fascinating topic (really!) – and here’s a good book about it.
During my last bought of job interviews, it was common to be given a short writing assignment after or during an interview in order to gauge my abilities without the filter of past published pieces, which went through editing and several layers of design. That’s fair enough.
The problem is when the expectations for a piece did not match the assignment.
I was proud to have Jacqui Banaszynski on my list of references. One thing she said to me during a training session has really stuck with me. I asked her how one finds time to write polished pieces that you are proud to have created when there is so much on a writer’s plate that craft is near impossible. She said that a big misconception is that every piece has to be great. Most of the time, you are doing the day-to-day pieces, the obits, the quick reports on city government, etc. Don’t spend time focusing on those, she said. Just get them done so you can focus on the pieces you really care about and want other people to care about.
I’m paraphrasing, but the intent is there. There are pieces that you work on that you can do quickly – the press release that you’ve written versions of 10 times before, the web copy that you can quickly modify from print sources – and then there are the pieces that you put your soul into.
So when a local engineering firm emailed to say that I needed to write a press release about a ribbon cutting for a new bridge, I got to work. I called one of the people the email said to talk to, he said that the reason I was writing this was they had interviewed their top five people, then none of them passed the writing test to their satisfaction. So they decided to send the writing test to the next 20 people on the list. I was one of them.
“You need to wow us,” he said.
Which is a particularly dickish position to take, I must say, especially when the test is about a run of the mill ribbon cutting. I’ve written ribbon cutting pieces. I’ve read them. None of them are interesting. At all.
The point of a press release about a ribbon cutting, which no one in the press will care about after the fact since it already happened, is to inform.
Informing is not a great position to be in when you want to “wow” someone.
Needless to say, I wrote a piece that relayed the facts of the event and why it was important. I didn’t get the job. And I’m grateful, because working in an environment where everyone feels they can properly judge your level of expertise in writing is not ideal. Just as I wouldn’t go around telling the engineers how they are doing it wrong, I appreciate a certain level of deference to my expertise in writing and reporting (which is not the same as being closed to suggestions).
I have that now. I get great feedback from colleagues I respect and who respect me. I also had to write a trial piece to get this job. They gave me plenty of information to cull from for the piece. We established some expectations during the interview — I made sure they weren’t expecting expertise on their product so any factual errors would get a pass. They agreed. Just that fact told me they were people who understood writing. They knew that simple errors and typos are not worth having a stroke about or yelling at someone about or bringing that person into the office to tell them that “You are making freshman level errors and how could you be that stupid?” which is something an adult human being actually said to Becky.
Such boundaries need to be established early. When I first started working at my present job, I made sure to tell people that I would be trying a lot of things that may or may not work, and the best thing to do is not worry about hurting my feelings and shoot them down if they don’t work. I write fast, I write a lot, and I like to try new things (like this Garrison Keillor style rambling post). The side-effect is that the new stuff won’t always work (like this Garrison Keillor style rambling post).
If you don’t establish these parameters, you end up with a boss who doesn’t write for a living telling you how formatting is an important piece of the writing process for ease of reading, which is like explaining addition to a math professor, except the math professor has to sit there and nod and not roll her eyes. If you wait too long, you get the dreaded “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which is a particularly insidious type of non-apology you find a lot in the work place these days. What it says, every time, is “you are an idiot to think that, I recognize that you feel angry, but I don’t feel bad about it in the slightest, however, I do wish that we can move on without me having to admit any sort of fault. And I know more about your area of expertise than you do even though you’ve been doing and teaching it for 10 years and I have not.”
I’ve written myself into a soap box labyrinth of bitchery. Can you tell? How to get out of it? Tried and true blogging method: make a list!
3 things to remember about writing for a living:
- Everyone is a critic, and you’ll have to get used to that. Do what you can to set expectations and boundaries. Praise good, critical feedback and try to respond to condescending feedback with some polite sarcasm.
- Don’t get attached. You are writing for the company, and it’s not your baby. If they want to use one word instead of another and they mean roughly the same thing – let it go.
- When asked to write a sample as part of a job interview, try to establish some expectations if you can. And if you are asked to write a sample piece before even being interviewed, run away, as they have already begun the applicant process by not respecting your time and experience and there is no chance they will turn around on that point once you are hired.