Anyone who’s watched football for any length of time has seen the scenario — there are precious few seconds left in the game and the home team is down by one score. The quarterback heaves the ball into the end zone and his receiver has it … and then inexplicably drops it. Time expires, and the game is over.
How does that receiver feel? He’s spent more hours than any of us can fathom practicing that very catch, and now, in front of his friends and family, his teammates and coaches, the fans in the stadium and millions of people watching across the country, he did the one thing that defies logic, odds, and nature itself — he blew it.
Of course you’re going to feel bad for the guy. Even the other team has to feel some shred of sympathy for him. But no one can know the depths of his anger, his frustration, and the wretched shame he has to feel in that moment, and for the days and even weeks to come.
And so it is in the editorial world. Oh, the moment is much less public and there’s a lot less riding on it, but when you’re called out for missing a typo you should have caught or you’re told that what you’ve written was sub-par, it’s a humiliating kick in the crotch that leaves you feeling exactly the way that football player felt. Exactly.
So what do you do about it? The football player — assuming he doesn’t get cut — has no choice but to shake it off and try and do a better job in the next game. But writers and editors don’t have that luxury. Even when the next project comes in — assuming the writer or editor hasn’t been fired — the weight of that mistake hangs like a millstone, and it can take an extraordinarily long time for them to let go. If ever.
Football players at least have teammates to bolster them, calm them, empathize with them, and help them refocus. But writing and editing are both highly solitary vocations, and often when one writer or editor reaches out to another for an ounce of sympathy, they’re met with a dismissive “Well, better you than me, kid.”
Humans are fallible and will always make mistakes. But writers and editors take a great deal of pride in their work, so mistakes for them are exponentially more painful. If you’ve got to call one of them out on something, try to be kind. And some positivity wouldn’t hurt either.
Who knows? One kind word from you and they could be bound for the Super Bowl.
By Steve Boudreault
In a delicious twist, I was going to skip this week’s blog because I simply didn’t have time to write it. Which got me thinking about how tough it is to find time to write. Which inspired me to write it anyway, irrespective of the time constraints. So here we are.
I know a lot of writers, and I don’t know how any of you do it. I mean, if you’re getting paid to write, I get it. That’s your job and you can devote eight to 10 hours a day to it. But those of you who write for pleasure and post your daily word counts … I just don’t know how you do it. I know why you do it, make no mistake. I just don’t know how.
“Well,” I’ve been told, “you make the time.” How do you make time? Time is time. And if you’ve got kids you need to take care of, and/or any sort of social life, and/or anything else in the world you like to do (watching TV, for example) or need to do (going to the gym), how can there possibly be time left over to write?
And even if you do have a chunk of time when you’re not raking leaves, running errands, paying bills, Facebooking, or anything else, aren’t you exhausted? Wouldn’t you much rather nap than write? Like I said, I simply don’t know how you do it.
It seems to me that the perfect writer is single with no kids, a hermit, and independently wealthy. But what are the odds that a person fitting that description would be the least bit interested in writing, let alone be good at it? Astronomical. But if I’ve just described your circumstances, more power to you.
So I’ve managed to make the time to write about not being able to make the time to write. But seriously, that’s all I have time for. Well, maybe one more thought -- to all my writer friends who somehow make it happen, keep making it happen!
By Steve Boudreault
Someone asked me recently if I knew what the word “absquatulate” means. As it happened, I did. (It means to leave abruptly.) This particular someone was very disappointed that I knew this word. Where I thought he was trying to learn a new word, he was, in fact, attempting to trip me up with it.
This is the blessing and the curse of being “the word guy.” People naturally assume that I’ve got the entire dictionary memorized from cover to cover, and while some can live contentedly with that belief, others feel the need to call me out on it.
More words followed in rapid succession. Conflagration. Languid. Defenestrate. Umbrage. As I offered definition after definition, he became more and more annoyed and began to pounce on any of my descriptions that were inexact or imprecise. As if that were some sort of victory.
For the record, I am a word guy, I am not the word guy. I know the words that I know, and I enjoy learning new ones, but I am not the oracle of the dictionary. I am fallible.
For example, for the longest time, I had assigned the definition of recalcitrant (hard to deal with, disobedient) to the word reticent (reluctant or restrained). Even now when I want to use either of those words, I need to pause and make sure I’m saying what I mean. See? The words and their definitions are not all at my fingertips or on the tip of my tongue.
It’s impossible to get an accurate figure, but simple math suggests that there are, at the very least, 250,000 distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary. That being the case, I’d say anyone who’s got a vocabulary consisting of more than grunts and squawks is doing all right.
By Steve Boudreault
There are plenty of pros and cons to being a freelance copywriter. Every copywriter knows that. But one of the biggest perks is being able to write something, send it to your client, and wash your hands of it. Unless they request a massive rewrite, you’ve given birth to that particular baby and put it up for adoption, and that’s that.
Being a copywriter in a company is a horse of a different color. Often times you’ll write something and hand it off to the next person in the chain -- a senior writer, a creative director, someone who will keep it moving through the system. They’ll make changes to it, and then the next person will make changes to it, and then the client will invariably make changes to it, and by the time it circles back to you -- if it ever does -- you can’t recognize a single word you wrote at the start. It’s been sanitized, homogenized, rewritten just enough so that someone else can take credit, client-ized, mutilated, spindled, devoured, and shat back onto your desk. It is not a warm, fuzzy feeling to see your work treated in this manner.
Of course, no copywriter expects their first draft to be a final draft. There are always tweaks to be made, and even the best copywriters will make edits to copy after letting it sit for a day or so. But there’s no happy ending when it comes to copy by committee. If it comes back unrecognizable but better, you feel like a failure. If it comes back unrecognizable but worse, you feel like you wasted your time.
So what’s an in-house copywriter to do? There’s only one reasonable solution, and that’s to do what the freelance copywriters do: let it go. Wash your hands of it. Accept that you’ve done your best and that there are forces beyond your control that are going to mess with your stuff no matter what. Find outlets for your writing where you can say whatever you want without input. And take plenty of deep breaths.
By Steve Boudreault
It’s probably safe to say that every great writer was once a great reader. It’s hard to imagine someone sitting down and committing the time and effort to writing something meaningful without first having been inspired by someone else’s writing.
But writing is just like any field — no matter how inspired one is by the greats, there will be always be extraordinary writers, good writers, and folks who were just never cut out to be writers.
Early in my career as a proofreader, I got my hands on a manuscript, the title and author of which I will take to my grave. Calling this thing a piece of shit would be charitable, and actually insulting to pieces of shit. It was the worst, most God-awful piece of writing — if one could even call it that — I’ve ever read in my life. And the poor guy who sent it to me for an edit was next planning to submit it to publishers. I did my best to tell him that it — *ahem* — needed work, but in his mind he was already spending his royalty checks, so I let him be.
The takeaway here is that the author — again, if we can call him that — in question had no idea how terrible he was. Most people don’t. To be fair, many extraordinary writers don’t know how talented they really are, nor do the good ones know they’re good. But at least those people aren’t wasting their time. Or anyone else’s.
The trouble with bad writers is that it’s so hard to tell them just how bad they are. You don’t want to be responsible for crushing someone’s dream, but you don’t want to be any more responsible for hearing “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Can bad writers become good writers? I’ve seen it happen. But it means following an incredibly tough road — writing something, putting it out there, and accepting honest criticism. It’s certainly not for everybody, but if writing’s what you love and you want to get better at it, it’s the only way.
One last thought on the topic of bad writers: I myself was once a terrible writer. I can’t even stand to read most of my old stuff. Am I good now? I can’t answer that with any objectivity, but I can say this for sure — I’m a hell of a lot better.
By Steve Boudreault