Everyone needs an editor

Young people can be so arrogant. Why is that the humans who know the least seem to think they know it all?

I remember when I was in college, taking journalism classes, and I was already making money from freelance writing. The school newspaper editor accidentally gave me the same assignment she’d given another student, and in a fit of frustration I announced to several other mass comm majors that, “I do this for a living and I don’t have time for this.”

Well, that was an idiotic thing to say.

Little did I know that it was exactly my job to factor in time for and be understanding of other people’s mistakes, because in the coming years I would make plenty of my own. When I got my first newspaper job, there were times my bosses could have fired me for making stupid mistakes, but they didn’t.

Overconfidence has never been one of my problems, except when I was younger and when it came to writing. I had gotten a little smug because of comments my English teachers wrote on my essays and because I’d won a few awards and professors sometimes tapped me when they needed a writing tutor. I didn’t know at 20 that as soon as I got my first job working with other professional writers and editors that I would no longer be the best writer in the room at any given time. I didn’t know that by 37 I would have collected far more rejection slips than acceptances. I didn’t know that when I decided to leave journalism and become a teacher, I would tell school administrators in job interviews how I would make a good writing teacher since I’d paid my bills as a writer and their response would be something like, “That’s nice, but we’ve got 19 other candidates, most of whom have experience and master’s degrees, so …”

At 20 years old, you don’t know what you don’t know.

So it shouldn’t surprise me now when the teens I teach come off as a bit naïve when it comes to writing and other aspects of life. Some think it’s OK to just write what they want with no regard for punctuation, formatting or intended audience. Some think profanity makes their writing impactful and thought-provoking.

Yes and no.

But mostly no.

If you turn something in to an editor and he can’t understand what you’re trying to say because you don’t believe in punctuation, then chances are you’ll get a rejection slip.

Imagine checking your inbox and seeing this query: “Dear editor, please consider this $****!@ piece that I dashed off in a fit of rage. I am actually an excellent writer, as you will see, and I am angry at the world today, which is what makes this $***!@#$$ story so unique, because my anger and rage is a revolutionary kind that will inspire your readers. And if you don’t like it, I don’t care because I am an awesome writer. &***** you!”

In my experience, you can’t make much of a living that way, and it’s hard enough to make a living as a writer. In fact, I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

The most successful writers I’ve interviewed – people who’ve written multiple books and gotten advances from publishers – have told me that they couldn’t really pay all of their bills through writing. A lot of them are married to someone who makes a good salary and that’s why they can afford to be writers. Or they have large trust funds. The sad truth is that you can be pretty talented and the world just may not care enough to pay you a living wage for it. I always struggle with how much of this I should say to young writers because the reality of it is discouraging.

The best writers I’ve met almost all have the same advice: Write because you enjoy it, because there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be published, and even if you are, you probably won’t make that much money.

At least most of my students have that part down – writing for themselves and not for some imaginary editor or audience. In fact, they are better at it than I am. This is why they tell me they don’t need punctuation. I continue to argue that they do, and that they should be able to edit one another’s work, and that they should seriously consider the suggestions of other writers and editors.

They write and read about what’s important to them, and I’m always grateful when it isn’t too dark or disturbing. Yesterday a student of mine read a poem about hair by Gwendolyn Brooks. I told the class that poem was proof it’s OK to write about hair. It’s OK to write about how, when you were 6, you refused to eat anything but macaroni and cheese. Not everything you write has to be fueled by visceral rage or profound discontent.

I do understand, though, why they think good writing should stir the emotions. I often want to write about hair and other such feminine topics, but I feel like the world won’t approve because I’m 37 years old and I should be writing one of those really depressing stories about midlife.  About cancer or divorce, or getting a divorce when your spouse has cancer. In the age of the viral personal essay, it seems those are the kinds of stories people my age are supposed to write. I read them in the middle of the night when I have insomnia, and despite being somber, many are quite interesting.

After she read the Gwendolyn Brooks poem, I remarked that we ladies think about our hair more than we care to admit. One of my students said she no longer cares about her hair. I told her I didn’t believe that. Some of us sick individuals care as much about our hair as our writing, though you might not know it to look at us. Recently, while reading depressing essays in the middle of the night, I stumbled on an ad for a new product that you put in your hair before you go to sleep and it guarantees you good hair for four days afterward. In the interest of honesty, I will tell you that I plan to go straight out and buy it.


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