Inkwell Poetry

I’ve taken to journaling with pen and ink.

I’m not talking a BIC stick; I’m talking wooden shaft, removable nibs, and a cute little inkwell with Jane Austen’s profile on it. (Okay, I admit it, I bought it in a gift shop.)

One morning, partly out of guilt for having used the set so rarely after buying it, I settled with my journal and my pen and ink, and somehow I fell in love with the medium.

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It’s slow. It’s unforgiving. It’s demanding. My usual hurried scrawl is impossible, but no matter how careful I am, my painstaking letters come out wobbly and uneven.

All things considered, I should hate it.

Yet, somehow, it soothes me. It slows me down, lets me think and breathe in between words. The rhythmic pauses to dip my nib in the inkwell force method and movement into what used to be an urgent, rushed process. Finding the precise angle best suited to my nib, like finding the precise angle best suited to my thoughts, takes practice and patience.

I love today’s culture: retro is in, and following fads is out (an irony that can twist your brain into knots if you think about it too long). You can wear anything you want and be in style. New home decor is as easy (and cheap!) as picking up broken windows or discarded bottles while yard sale shopping.

And record players are popular once more, as evidenced by the gleaming Crosley turntable on the coffee table across from me.

In an era when you can fit weeks’ worth of music on a pocket-sized device, why are people returning to a device as inconvenient and limited as a record player? It’s huge. It’s heavy. You have to flip the record over every fifteen minutes or so, and you can only listen to one album at a time—none of the “shuffle all” freedom of, say, an iPod.

So why, I asked myself as I set Simon and Garfunkel spinning, would I rather switch on a record player?

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For the same reason I like to dip a pen in an inkwell: for the authenticity. For the intentionality. For the beauty of the flaws—the fuzzy high notes or spreading ink blotches, the click of the needle when you set it down and the scratch of metal against paper as the ink becomes something new.

I love the inkwell because I dip into it and draw out words that flow to the page in a beautiful, organic way that never occurs when I force thoughts out of the cheap, plastic tube of a ballpoint. I love it because I feel the words forming, sense the effort and time they deserve rather than cramming them out as quickly as my brain can conjure them. Because even more than the words on the page, the process becomes poetry in its own right.

Because when I’ve finished and my wobbly letters straggle like weary soldiers across the page, I know I’ve given away a part of my soul—and then my soul feels not less, but more.

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On Handling Criticism

I like to think I handle criticism fairly well. I don’t, but I like to think I do.

I got spoiled this summer, working for fantastic people who constantly praised my work. I was pretty pleased with myself.

Until this week.

A publishing house for which I did a part-time internship in the spring offered to keep sending me manuscripts this summer, so I’ve spent evenings and weekends making comments and changes, doing my best to be professional. (And by “my best,” I mean I tried to sound nice, but I have a hard time sounding professional, because professional always sounds so harsh. But I tried.)

I sent it in and asked for feedback—because it’s a learning experience, right?

He replied, very politely, that I made too many comments and should remember that this author is an award winning, published writer… and though he didn’t say it, the overall impression was, “You’re an intern with little experience; who are you to criticise your betters?”

I closed my laptop and made several cups of Earl Grey. Then I spent three days in a horrible funk, binge-watching TV, reading YA novels, and avoiding my email.

See—told you I don’t handle criticism well.

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The whole time, this shadow loomed—the knowledge that at some point, I had to respond.

Finally, I wrote a long letter detailing the whole thing to a friend, and as I wrote, I realised a few things.

This man, a professional with years of experience, took the time to send feedback that I requested. He did so politely (I know it doesn’t sound like it, but remember, I told you my impression; his actual wording was courteous and ended on a “I’m sure with practise you’ll get very good at this” note). He gave me something to work with and learn from.

But most importantly, it’s his publishing house, not mine. He has the right to ask for whatever kind of edits he wants, and I have no right to criticise that. I’m doing a job for him, and I can’t force him to want the job done my way.

And the truth is, he’s right: I’m young. I have limited experience. I agreed to this internship claiming I want to learn—so I must be willing to take criticism, to make mistakes and learn how to fix them rather than pouting when they’re pointed out.

I want to make something clear here: I still don’t think my edits were wrong; the problems I pointed out are all valid concerns.

But the issue is not whether I’m right. No matter how right I may be, when I’m working for someone else, the highest priority is what they want. Besides—do I really care that much? Maybe I’m just being stubborn because I’m embarrassed and it’s easier to say, “You’re wrong” than, “I’m sorry; I’ll try to improve.”

Though criticism is never fun, it’s teaching me about flexibility and humility. Oh yeah—and about editing.

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Internships: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do

Summer hit me like a belly-flop from the high dive this year. I interviewed for my internship eight days before I flew home from school. I got the “Congratulations! You got the job!” call two days before I flew home. I found an apartment and ordered a plane ticket a week before I flew to New York, and I had one day to make sure I knew which train to get on before I started.

I was scared to death. I had no idea what to expect. I considered quitting before I started

The end of summer is hitting me a little less like a belly-flop and a little more like a cannonball—still insane impact and a lot of mess, but much less pain.

I’m glad I didn’t quit, because I had a fantastic summer. It flew by. Working an internship is the difference between practicing a stroke on dry land and trying it in water; you’re submerged in the experience, and I discovered that I love being submerged in publishing. I also like to think I learned a thing or two about what you should and should not do in an internship.

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1. Do: Take your work seriously.
This sounds really “duh,” I know, but it’s tempting to think, “I’m just an intern. I’m temporary. It won’t matter.” But it will. An internship is one of the easiest ways to get a job out of college. Probably half the people I met or worked for this summer had been hired after interning. Even if you don’t plan to go back and work for the company, the work you do is only temporary for you. Any given task and its ramifications may only last till the end of summer for me, but for the supervisor I turn it in to, for the production department who have to work with it, for the book it winds up affecting in the end—even for the consumers who read that book—my work is long-term. It carries permanent weight.

2. Don’t: Take yourself seriously.
People will respect you for the work you do, but they’ll like you for how you make them feel. Be friendly. Chat with people, smile, laugh, listen. Try to see other people’s perspectives and don’t get too hung up on yourself. Remember that you’re an intern, not a full-time employee—meet your deadlines, but take advantage of the flexibility offered, make friends with people who can teach you things, accept that you will fail and that the easiest way to deal with that is with honesty, good humour, and humility. Apologise. Fix the problem. Laugh at yourself. You’ll go far.

3. Do: Show your enthusiasm.
In a world full of stressed people running on the hamster wheel of corporate life, nothing stands out more than someone who genuinely enjoys being there. I’m not saying to pretend to love something you hate, but even the worst job has its perks. I’m fortunate enough to have found an internship I absolutely loved (nearly) every minute of; you might not be—but still keep an eye out for the things you enjoy. Look for the aspects that you gravitate toward and let your supervisors know you enjoy them. Tell people which tasks you could do all day or what about your work is meaningful to you. Your supervisor isn’t there just to hand out work, and he or she will be gratified to hear that you love the idea of helping create a better product for the consumer or that you get excited about brainstorming creative ways to market. Plus your enthusiasm differentiates you from the hundreds of other interns who will be looking for a job soon.

4. Don’t: Say no.
Don’t say no to anything. Get invited to a meeting that seems unrelated to your job? Go anyway. Learn about whatever they’re discussing. I’ve been to sales meetings and question-and-answer sessions for an office move that I won’t be here for. I’ve listened to global executives discuss budgets and artists discuss cover designs. Vital to my particular job? Absolutely not—but they gave me a more complete picture of how the company works, what the different people do, how various departments interact. I’ve done spreadsheets, made phone calls, and scanned cheque request forms. Related in any way to writing or copyediting? Absolutely not—but being willing to do anything makes your supervisors like you and lets you see what other people’s jobs entail, again giving you a more holistic view of the company. The point of an internship is not to make money or to simply survive it—it’s to learn, so don’t ever say no to any opportunity to learn anything.

5. Do: Ask questions.
“Ask questions” is a common piece of advice that people don’t follow much. Don’t just ask questions when you need information in order to complete a task; ask questions about everything. Ask what part your small piece of work plays in the bigger picture. Find out who a job came from and where it’s going. Find out what that guy in the cubical down the hall does and how it relates to what you’re doing. Email people and ask for informational interviews—they’ll be happy to do them, and you’ll learn about jobs you never knew existed or insider secrets of how or where to apply if you want to get to a certain position, and you’ll meet someone who might become a valuable contact in getting to an interview. If nothing else, you might make a friend.

6. Don’t: Just float.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options, the uncertainties, and your growing recognition of how little you really know about your chosen field. Feeling so at sea, it can be easy to just bob around, taking whatever opportunities you get but setting no definite goals. Don’t just float. Pick a goal and work toward it. Remember that goals can change; that’s okay—but pick a milestone or you’ll never get anywhere. Even if you’re taking whatever job you can get without being picky, set yourself goals. Decide what you want to learn or what job you want to transition into. Don’t let yourself float aimlessly when you could be getting somewhere.

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Beyond all that, enjoy yourself. An internship is a fantastic opportunity to try a career out and see how you feel about it. If you discover you hate your chosen path, search for the humour in it. If you discover you love it, savour every moment. The important thing to remember is that it’s a temporary adventure, so appreciate it before it ends.

An Open Letter to a Toxic Couple (5 things not to do)

Dear Toxic Couple,

I call you that because a few nights ago, I lay in bed listening to you shouting for over an hour. My thin apartment walls let every word through, and by the time I fell asleep, you had sketched your relationship for me. From your argument, I gather you’re engaged to be married and that one of you recently disclosed information about painful past events and relationships.

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I’ve been privy to and participant in countless fights, shouting matches, and tearful discussions. But for some reason, your fight got under my skin. It wasn’t just the invasive volume; loud voices can’t explain why now, days later, someone else’s fight still troubles me. I think it’s because you gave vivid examples of abusive tactics I’ve read about but never witnessed directly.

You, sir, cared more about being right than about loving her.

I listened to you ridicule, condemn, and dismiss her pain, her convictions, her family, her choices, and her person. When she had the courage to say, “You’re being hurtful, and it’s not okay,” I listened to say, “No I’m not.” More than once, your response was, “You need to let that go.” When she tried to explain how she felt, I heard you interrupt her mid-sentence, blatantly tell her that her perceptions were wrong, and then have the audacity to say, “You need to stop interrupting and show some respect.”

I fought the urge to bang on the wall and shout, “She’s right! You’re being awful! Listen to her!” I thought better of that, and instead of barging in on someone else’s conversation, I’m writing this: an open letter to remind you of things that are never, ever okay in a relationship.

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1. Ridiculing insecurities.
She trusted you enough to share deep hurts, secrets, regrets, and convictions, and you have a responsibility as a decent human being—not to mention as the man who claims love her—to respect that trust. She gave you the gift of trust by showing you where you could hurt her most. You should now know how to protect her, not how to wound her. No matter how heated the argument, those insecurities are absolutely off limits, and you lowered yourself by attacking her vulnerable points.

2. Negating pain.
When she says, “You hurt me,” I don’t care how innocent your intentions were, you stop immediately and apologise. What’s real to her is the pain she feels, not the intentions you claim. Instead of apologising, you told her to get over it, to let it go. You told her that her hurt wasn’t real, wasn’t significant—you were insulting, cruel, and, frankly, wrong. Your reaction to her pain was a form of gaslighting, an abusive emotional manipulation tactic. I never heard you apologise. Not once.

3. Attacking family.
Family is like extra weight or grey hairs: if they’re yours, you can make them the butt of the joke, but if they’re not, treat them with respect and discretion. From your shouting match, I gathered you think her family did something worthy of eternal hatred, but she wants to forgive and reconcile. I don’t know her family (and according to her, neither do you). What I do know is that attacking the people she loves is petty and unlikely to either improve their relationship or encourage her to leave a toxic situation. If you think her family is coming between you, a rational conversation might be warranted, but vicious insults are not. And unless her family is actually hurting her, you trying to separate them is emotional manipulation on your part and is a warning sign she should know to look for.

4. Demanding respect without giving it.
When you ended your tirade, she tried to explain how she felt. You interrupted every other sentence to tell her she was wrong. You never listened or gave her time to talk out her perspective. And then you had the nerve to tell her she should stop interrupting and respect you. And she tried. She spoke rationally. She never attacked you personally. But you have no right to demand respect when you treat her with such harshness. As it happened, she was already showing respect whether you deserved it or not; you demanded submission, and I applaud her refusal.

5. Using “I love you” as an excuse. 
What really turned my stomach as I listened was your use of, “I love you.” You fitted it in between insult and disparagement, first telling her she should “get over it,” then telling her your harshness stemmed from love. You made it sound like she owed you something, like you did her a favour by declaring affection, and in return she should agree with you and forget the ways you ridiculed her. But love does not attack; love protects. It does not wound; it comforts. It does not demand; it gives. “I love you” is never an excuse for the type of cruelty I heard from you.

I want to believe this argument represented an anomaly in your relationship, that you were both tired, stressed, caving to human pressures and saying things usually wouldn’t and truly regret. I want to think you’ve sat down since then and had a real conversation—one in which you listened to each other, refrained from interrupting, acknowledged the awful things you said, took responsibility, forgave each other.

If not, then I hope, ma’am, that you keep the strong voice I heard through the walls when you told him how unacceptable you found his words. I hope you raise it in protest and, if it comes down to it, in finality. There is much to be said for forgiving, loving, accepting others with all their flaws. But if his “love” crushes, manipulates, and wounds you, walk away. You deserve a healthy love, one that respects, encourages, and shelters you.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth

Small Joys

I sat on the windowsill and blew bubbles out onto the evening breeze, because this week, the full weight of my aloneness settled on me.

Over the weekend, I walked alone through Central Park and passed couples jogging, children playing, and dogs walking their people. I wanted to point out the way the air smelt unaccountably of cinnamon, but I had nobody to notice it with me. I wanted to marvel at how unfamiliar grass and trees and mulch seemed already, after so short a time living in the city, but I had nobody to sigh with me. Every morning and evening, I walked alone through Madison Square Park and passed coworkers chatting on benches, mothers tugging toddlers along, and friends waving across the square. I wanted to see a friend and smile in recognition, but I had nobody to greet.

I slide into lonely self-pity with the same ease I slump down into my seat on the subway. But a wise man once remarked that, “The world is so full of a number of things…” So this week, I reminded myself of the small joys that soften my isolation.

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Small joys of soft rain caressing my face in the park. Of the sparrows fluttering in dust-baths, so tiny and yet so bold. Of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice drifting down the street out some open window, and of flashes of my childhood rushing in and out of my room as cars pass by at night, radios blaring.

Small joys of twisted tree roots breaking up the synthetic structure of the sidewalk, and of the cactus someone set in its pot on the first-storey windowsill outside my door. Of the man who greets me in Spanish at the tienda on the corner and sells me queso fresco for hojaldres that taste like home. Of hour-long, rambling conversations with my mother as I pace my flat—seven steps to the door and seven back to the bed, pivot, step again.

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Small joys of free books and hour-long subway rides to read them. Of the boy humming with his guitar in the Times Square station, eyes closed and mouth smiling, and of the man growling jazz on his saxophone by the fountain, dancing with the force of his syncopation.

Small joys of the post—of letters in elegant calligraphy swirls and heartfelt scrawls, and of boxes filled with homemade cookies, Nutella, and Sharpies.

And small joys of bubbles, floating like transient jewels on the evening breeze, dancing between high rises and lighting on fire escapes, escaping into the lowering dusk from my seat on the windowsill.

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Pizza: Free. Advice: Priceless.

Every Thursday, I stand outside a locked door and wait for someone to let me in. I think I hate it more than anything else I’ve had to do since coming to New York (and that’s saying a lot; this morning I took all the subway stairs in one embarrassing, painful step).

Why put myself through it? The quick answer is, “Free food!” Because, let’s face it, I’ll do a lot for free food. The more honest answer is complicated. It’s all tied up with scary words like “networking” and “career opportunities,” but I guess it comes down to this: people who made it to the top are telling their stories and answering questions, and I want to know what they’re saying.

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So every Thursday, I wait outside that locked door for someone to let me in. I walk into a small conference room crowded with summer interns all hoping these few months will give them the boost they need to start climbing that ladder. I queue for free pizza, and I find a seat as near the door as possible, and then I listen to a professional talk about publishing, or editing, or whatever they do, and I try to hear something relevant.

A couple weeks ago, in one of those crowded intern luncheons, Will Schwalbe said something I love: “You can’t make money doing anything cynically.”

This came in answer my question about striking a balance between doing what you like and doing what pays. And his answer has stuck with me. I see it as presenting an ultimatum: either you do something, or you don’t. But if you decide to do it, do it the right way.

Don’t be mercenary. Don’t do things because you think they’ll pay off. There are so many reasons to do things—you should be able to come up with something more creative than money. Do it for the experience. Do it for the challenge. Do it because someone has to, and you’re willing to be that responsible person.

Or don’t do it.

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If you have to do it, find a way to value it. There’s a 300-name spreadsheet I’m filling in at work. I have the choice of how to do it, and if I’m doing it cynically, I’m missing out. Some things don’t slap you upside the face with how meaningful they are; you have to dig, imagine, get outside your box.

Experience, as I’ve mentioned, is a good motivator for me. The story I’ll tell about it later often makes up for what I’m doing at the moment. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of a job well done: 300 names in neatly formatted columns? Sign me up! Maybe it’s the perspective I gain along the way—I’m seeing a broad comparison of psych professors and schools across the country in a way I would never have known otherwise, and I’m getting insight into what the sales departments deal with.

So no, walking across the park to wait for someone to let me into a crowded room full of strangers is not my favourite thing. But I do it every week. Why? Because I think I’ll make valuable connections that will pay off in the future? I did the first day. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is not about the pay rate it might secure me later on. This is about learning about something I love, from someone who’s loved it longer, surrounded by other people who love it too.

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…but the free pizza doesn’t hurt.

Tainted Glory

Heads up, guys: I’m going to use some offensive language in this post. Partly because it’s about offensive language. You can be offended and walk away, or you can read the post and then decide what you think. I’d prefer the latter, but I understand the former.

“Hey, read this thing!” I say, handing my phone to a friend. “It’s hilarious. Oh–but it has some language.”

That’s a regular occurrence for me. I recently shared a funny picture to my baby brother’s Facebook wall, only to delete it seconds later because I realised it had the word “shit” in it, and probably my parents would not be thrilled with me sharing that sort of language to my impressionable teenage brother, no matter how funny the comic was.

And, guys, that bothers me.

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It was this comic, by the way, and I’m still snickering over it. If you don’t think this is hilarious, we have a serious problem.

Not the protective parent thing; my parents are basically the best thing ever. But the whole language thing in general. Permit me to wax eloquent.

A word is a funny thing. A simple combination of letters and sounds can evoke some crazy psychological responses. If I say “pink elephants,” one person might envision a pink pachyderm, and another might remember the smell of funnelcakes from the fair where a stuffed pink elephant hung over a game booth, and yet another (this is me!) might start humming the Pink Elephants On Parade song from Dumbo

But, despite all these associations, the letters and sounds themselves are just that: letters and sounds. They only have the meaning we give them.

Now let’s talk about a different word. Let’s take “bitch.” If I say “bitch,” one person might envision a dog, another might think of a crazy ex-girlfriend, and yet another might imagine a two-year-old whining about something. And some people will immediately forgo any association except shock at my language.

But still, the letters and sounds themselves are just that: letters and sounds. They only have the meaning we give them.

We’ve all seen those fun “which region is your dialect” quizzes that ask you whether you call it “pop” or “soda” or “coke.” So what’s the difference whether I call it “complaining” or “whinging” or “bitching”? The difference is, some people will be highly offended at one–maybe even to the point of not hearing my meaning, so hung up on that one particular word that they miss the rest. Words that kids today get their mouths washed with soap for saying were common usage a hundred years ago (back to our example of “bitch”–and here is a fun article about how this happens). Words that we say without compunction in one part of the world are highly offensive in others (“fanny” might be polite in the US, but please don’t say it in parts of the UK).

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And those regional dialect quizzes are definitely important, especially if you, like me, aren’t entirely sure where your vocabulary came from…

And guys, I can say “bitch” with a perfectly good attitude and “meany-face” with murder on my mind, and many people will excuse “meany-face” and judge “bitch.”

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King expresses a dichotomy of opinions: on the one hand, swearing is, “the language of the ignorant and the verbally challenged;” on the other, “It’s important to tell the truth; so much depends on it.” And as he sees it, sometimes the truth involves rude language. I’m not here to tell you that you should brush up on terms that would shock your grandmother. I am, however, suggesting that you don’t shut off a whole world of thought because one word offends you.

Offensive language doesn’t offend me. I choose not to use it out of respect for people who might be offended, desire to use more creative language, and a sort of selfish desire not to talk like everyone around me (I’m probably the only one at my university who still occasionally says, Oh my stars and garters!, and I like it that way)–but I don’t cringe when I hear it in films or read it online. And you know what? I think I’d miss a lot if I did. Some of the most impactful things I’ve ever read were posted on Tumblr, replete with sketchy punctuation, no capitalisation (except for those occasional all-caps rants), and more instances of “fuck” than I knew you could cram in one sentence. These are the kind of things I consider sharing with friends and then don’t, because I can already imagine the scene:

Friend: “That had a lot of f-words in it. Are you sure you sent me the right link?”
Me: “Right, yeah, I know, but the content. Didn’t you think that was super funny/deep/though-provoking/some other worthwhile quality?”
Friend: “…you know, I just don’t think you need to use bad language to express yourself. It shows ignorance/lack of class/bad upbringing/some other negative quality.”
Me: “But the content. Did you get the content?!”

We see a four-letter word, some sort of guilt starts tickling under our ribs, and there’s a whole world we don’t see because we choose not to look. Because it might not be pretty and clean. See, we who try not to swear, we miss out. We miss great jokes because whoever told them used words we didn’t like. We miss deep thoughts because someone expressed them with language our mothers told us not to use. We miss people’s hearts because they aren’t as tidy and conventional as we’d like.

Guys, we miss hearing people’s stories.

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Here is a thing that supposedly Oscar Wilde said but that I can’t find anywhere in the original play, and which I therefore think came solely from the movie. No matter where it came from, it’s beautiful and important.

Christians have a reputation of being judgmental, straight-laced, and hypocritical. And for some reason this surprises us.

I’m not saying we should all adopt sailor-grade colourful language, but maybe we should consider the fact that our petty war on four-letter words is preventing us from fighting for people’s hearts. And people matter more than my righteous indignation any day. If we can’t hear someone’s story beyond the language they use to tell it, the whole “judgmental, straight-laced, and hypocritical” label isn’t a misunderstanding–it’s a truth. A truth that, ironically, we can’t hear because it’s probably expressed with a few offensive terms. People don’t want your sermons or your “Jesus can fix you” platitudes. They want you to care. To hear their stories, to love them where they are, to say, “You matter, right now, right here.”

Guys, can we stop being offended long enough to listen?

How to Make Writers Hate You (in 3 easy steps)

During high school, I realised I should not be a teacher.

For one thing, my mind jumps from step one to step three in most subjects, making any sort of linear teaching a struggle.
For another, I lack patience–I like finding a few different ways to explain a thing, but once I’ve used those few different ways, if you still don’t get it, I prefer to give up rather than find one more way.

Also, I dislike mornings, rules, and rooms full of people–especially air-conditioned rooms full of people.

Despite these considerations, I am a consultant in my university’s writing centre–a position requiring me to work with students of varying skill level on pieces ranging from personal creative works to 40-page research papers on topics I didn’t know existed.

I’m also in several classes this semester that involve editing and critiquing. After getting back a few pieces scarred over with the kind of editing that we try to avoid in the writing centre, I feel more or less adequately experienced to expound on some things that will make writers despise you as an editor.

1.  Make arbitrary changes.
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     Imagine ordering a burger, extra pickles, no cheese. You probably ordered that for a reason. Maybe you love pickles and have a dairy allergy. Maybe you just don’t like cheese. Now imagine the server brings you something you didn’t order. Best case scenario, the burger has the normal amount of pickles and a big slice of cheese. Worst case scenario, the thing on your plate isn’t even a burger–you take a big bite, expecting a juicy burger, extra pickles, no cheese–and you taste a fish sandwich complete with relish and tartar sauce. And the server points out that there’s even extra relish–which is sort of like extra pickles–and there’s no cheese, which is, after all, what you asked for.
     “But this isn’t what I ordered!” you say.
     “No, but it’s better,” the server explains.
     Then the server bills you for improving your order.
     Making arbitrary changes to someone else’s writing is like bringing someone the wrong sandwich at a restaurant. No matter how much better you think the thing is, it’s not what the author asked for.
     This doesn’t mean don’t make changes. It means suggest changes. If the change you’re suggesting isn’t mechanical–“you forgot a comma here” or “this is grammatically incorrect”–instead of just scratching out the author’s words and inking in your version of better phrasing or, heaven forbid, a completely different (but better!) plot, make a suggestion. Say, “I’m confused here. Could you clarify? Perhaps you could…” If you feel really strongly about your change, write it in–but make sure you still write it in as a suggestion, and give your reasoning, because if the author is anything like me, he or she is unlikely to just take your suggestion–but explaining your reasoning ensures that the author can come up with a fix for the problem you see.

2.  Expect the author to make every change you suggest.

chameleon

     Imagine ordering another burger. You know every burger place is different, so before finalising your order, you ask the server’s advice. You fancy your burgers with extra pickles and no cheese–does the server think this particular burger would taste better that way, or should you consider trying it with cheese? Which sauce does the server suggest to best complement the signature burger flavour at this establishment? Does the server think the burgers here are any good, or should you scrap the burger idea entirely and try a fish sandwich instead?
The server makes a lot of suggestions, explains that the cheese here is a particularly delicious variety chosen specifically for these burgers, and the standard serving of pickles on burgers here is much larger than the standard serving in other burger joints. However, the truth is that the fish sandwiches in this restaurant are much better than the burgers.
At this point, you decide the server is a truly useful individual, and you consider your options carefully. Although you acknowledge that the server’s experience leads to astute observations on the quality of the food, you do not care for fish and would still like a burger–however, thanks to the server’s suggestions, you agree to try the burger without extra pickles and with the cheese. As long as the server brings you the burger (with normal pickles and cheese) you will be grateful for the server’s advice. However, if the server then calls you a nincompoop for not ordering the recommended fish sandwich, you may become irate. If the server follows that insult by referring to your mother as a hamster and your father as having smelt of elderberries, you will probably file a complaint and refuse to visit this restaurant in the future.

     As an editor, you are free to make as many suggestions and recommendations as you would like, and you have the option of making them lightly and vaguely or strongly and specifically. As long as you are useful and polite, the author will probably be quite grateful for your assistance. However, if you try to force the author to take your suggestions, or if you follow up your recommendations by insinuating that the author is a writer on the level of your parakeet if he or she does not adhere to your advice, the author will be extremely annoyed and offended and may retaliate by suggesting that you are an editor on the level of a baboon and refusing to use your services ever again.
     The author may do this in a public way, causing other writers to avoid your services.
     Unless you’re the one publishing the piece, you don’t have a right to expect your advice to be followed explicitly.

3.  Insult the piece.

penguinslap

     Imagine you truly love burgers, especially with extra pickles and no cheese. Upon entering yet another restaurant, you order your beloved favourite: a burger with extra pickles and no cheese. The server proceeds to recommend a burger without extra pickles and with cheese, goes so far as to suggest that you switch your order entirely to a fish sandwich, and then leaves off menu suggestions entirely and expresses the opinion that your burger choice displays insipid ignorance and the poorest of perceptive skills. In fact, this audacious server even suggests that with such an egregious lack of taste in food choice, you ought not to be eating at all.
You are mildly surprised at the number of servers who favour fish sandwiches over burgers, but this feeling is secondary to one of offence and outrage. Your taste in burgers is the result of years of dedicated burger tasting, and you never make your food choices lightly. Both wounded and furious, you tear the menu in half and storm out of the restaurant.

     When editing, you can say almost anything you want about a piece, as long as you say it in the form of a helpful suggestion. No matter how tempted you are to scribble, “STOP BORING ME TO DEATH I NEED MY BRAIN CELLS FUNCTIONAL!” across entire paragraphs of drivel, you have a responsibility to write criticism only in the context of constructive suggestions. Instead of offensive phrases, try, “This section is a little slow. Some specific action might help.” or “This part is a bit heavy. Could we get some dialogue to break it up?” Not only is this less likely to bring down upon you the wrath of a writer scorned, like whose fury hell hath no–but it also involves actually doing your job, which is to help make a piece better, not simply to haemorrhage red ink over its 12-point Times New Roman bones.
     No matter how bad a piece is, you have to remember that you’re communicating with another human being with feelings and a strong attachment to this piece–an attachment rather analogous to that of a mother grizzly bear to her cubs. Be honest. Be tactful. Be useful.

Here’s the thing: if you’re the one ordering the burger, you order your burger for you. If you want extra pickles–great. If you want to smother the thing in horseradish–great. Nobody else has to like it if you like it. Don’t be surprised if all your dinner guests refuse to eat your special wasabi and anchovy burger, but don’t let that stop you eating it yourself.

If you’re the one serving the burger, unless you have to serve it to more than just the person who ordered it, you have to serve what they ordered. Make suggestions all you want, but in the end, the customer is always right. Even when the customer wants extra pickles or whatever else.

There’s a weird balance to editing. You have to realise that you’ve been entrusted with something precious–something created out of another human being’s experiences, interpretations, hopes, and writer’s cramp. You have an opportunity to comment on it, help smooth the rough edges away, offer insights, share your own experience. That’s a pretty awesome opportunity, actually. It’s not quite like being a writer or a reader. You’re not just communicating; you’re helping someone else communicate.

If you think about it, you’re being offered a little piece of a writer’s soul. So recognise its individuality, respect its uniqueness, and, as your mother always told you, return it in better condition than you received it.