Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who's a crappy writer?

I'll tell you: anyone who's ever written for the technical or business sector knows that getting a technical point across can be difficult to do succinctly. Having the confidence to put that point across well is even more difficult. You've got to have the right tone, keep within the structure of the document, make sense, and write well all at once. I've always lacked confidence in it despite being a technical writer for many years, but have persevered nonetheless. I only recently realized that I don't write horribly.

This realization came late because everyone is an editor. And when you produce content, you are especially under fire. The best end of the fire spectrum is when someone with no writing or grammar skills corrects you. (My favorite was when someone diligently went through my document and changed all the instances of "that" to "which" -- and not in the right way.)

The worst is when someone who is intelligent and writes well tells you that what you've written is crap or that they didn't like it. Even worse: when they don't write as a part of their job, as in, they're an accountant or something. Even worse than the even worse: when they say that the draft you took over from a somebody whose writing resembles scribbles on cave walls, and whose draft was so atrociously bad that you wanted to puke, and explode, and then rub their draft in the puke and explosion, was actually good. Then you want to really crawl in a hole.

In most situations, a good writer should be able to explain why the crappy edits were crappy, and sound reasonable intelligent doing so. But the damage is done: you've already been told you're no good and that you should look into mining salt because writing is going to end in tears for you.

It's really hard to keep up the confidence. It's really hard to write well, but it's even harder to write better than that. I think I have a good handle on what's what, so I can be honest with myself (except when discussing my weight with the bathroom scale, who is a rat-faced liar). I know I can write well enough, and I also know I don't write beautifully. I'm fairly sure that I've never moved anyone to tears. Someone I used to know once spoke of a writer we both personally knew and she said a letter he'd written to her once moved her to tears, it was so gorgeous and lovely. Naturally, that's stayed with me for years and years. I wish I could do that. I probably won't. I accept that and move on.

The most treacherous thing about writing in the business world, however, is that you think you've produced a nice piece--no, you think you've nailed it, and then someone (usually the intelligent accountant) says, "No, I found this very confusing. I had a problem with it. It's not that good." And you just want to shrivel up--not necessarily because your writing was bad, but because you'd deluded yourself so horribly!

Delusion is the worst part of writing. It's why there are query letters and agents and editors--to keep the deluded out. Are you deluded? Have you ever felt deluded about you writing, or is it just me?


Anonymous said...

I once had an editor who removed any big words or phrases from our news stories - any word she didn't know, which was any word above an eighth-grade vocabulary. Or maybe sixth grade. I remember her removing "glass ceiling," for example. It was maddening working under her, but no one else wanted her job. No one wanted to edit. We all wanted to write.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I heard that this is the way copy editors and editors operate at big newspapers, under the theory that readers aren't beyond eighth grade reading levels.

I think it's a misguided rule of working.

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