Editors, Writers, and Split Loyalties

I stare at the words on my computer screen. My next words will define my loyalties yet again in this delicate game.

“Yes, there are a lot of potential problems with the statement,” I type finally, “but that’s the author’s opinion. I think we need to leave it.”

I read over my comment twice, then smack enter. Loyalty to excellence and to my publication pitted against loyalty to my author—this time, I back my author.

This challenge arises every week, a regular part of my new adventure: editing the opinions page for The Echo.

title

The job seems simple enough. Opinions, the least restricting page in the paper, should have more submissions than I can handle. I should be sending rejection letters.

Instead, I’ve been scrambling. Since school started, any time I hear a strong opinion in conversation, I say, “Write me an article!” I pester people for pieces up ’til the last minute, accept articles hundreds of words over the limit, spend hours revising solid ideas badly written.

Why?

People are afraid.

Putting your position in writing—especially in a newspaper—makes it real, public, irrevocable. You may change your mind later, but that one article, archived somewhere, forever links you to that one opinion. People are afraid they’ll lack support, afraid they’ll offend, afraid they’ll fail. The more personal an opinion, the more frightened they are; the more you care, the greater the potential for pain.

Pen

What if nobody agrees? Worse—what if nobody cares?

As an editor, I can’t force anyone to write. People have a right to hold their opinions in silence. And yet, I think, important convictions should be shared—not necessarily in the interests of convincing a reader, but in the interests of posing a question, making space for a challenge to your thinking, opening the door to bigger ideas and deeper considerations.

Unsolicited submissions arrive with false bravado phrases:
“I hope you see the importance of this topic.”
“I believe this is extremely relevant right now.”

Newspaper-thin shields hiding their fears:
This might not look important, but it is to me; please print it.
This might not seem relevant, but it is to me; please print it.

Solicited submissions arrive with apologies.
“I hope this is what you’re looking for; it probably needs editing.”
“It’s pretty bad; you can change it if you need to.”

Newspaper-thin shields hiding their hopes:
This scared me, but I searched for the words and voiced my convictions; please print it.
This stretched me, but I struggled through the writer’s block and research; please print it. 

And I accept them, reassure them, print them.

And on production night, with copyeditors’ comments popping up, filled with late-night snark and made-up words, I balance my loyalties. Yes, this grammatical concern is valid. You’re right; this sentence is redundant.

No. You cannot change this idea. 

Because my loyalty is to excellent writing, to the paper I work for. But ultimately, my loyalty is also to human beings.

Writer

To writers with minds and souls, worries and hopes. My job is not just to critique and copyedit, but to help people share their opinions genuinely and fearlessly.

Advertisements

The 99% Cliché

“There is a mean-spiritedness to this place,” a coworker told me on Friday.

building

I could only stare at her, speechless. In the nearly two months I have worked for Worth Publishers, I have seen I’ve seen coworkers do each other’s jobs to be helpful and supervisors provide time off without question. People have taken time to teach me and to laugh with me, to forgive my mistakes graciously and encourage my successes unstintingly. The doors are always open and the walls are thin. I’ve overheard casual conversations and business meetings, one woman swearing at her computer when it crashed and and another calling a plumber for her mother. I’ve overheard nothing to hint at pervasive mean-spiritedness.

I don’t write this to complain about a coworker or to rant about how much I love my workplace, but to point out the practical relevance of a cliché that we all know but seldom consider: life is 99% attitude.

I walked into that building on the first day terrified—but also excited, eager, and anticipatory. However, I walked in without expectations. I knew the company owed me nothing. Grateful to even be making an hourly wage as an intern, I planned to perform my duties as well as I could and ask no favours.

It turns out I didn’t have to ask; supervisors and coworkers handed out favours like free lollies at the bank from the moment I stepped in the door—but if they hadn’t, if they’d been cool and demanding and cut me no slack, I would not have been disappointed. I certainly wouldn’t have called them mean-spirited. I hoped for the best, but expecting nothing beyond civility, and thus I left no room for disappointment, only pleasant surprises.

I don’t know this woman. All I know of her is contained in brief “good morning”s, the blur of motion when she walks past, her voice coming through walls or over cubicle partitions when she’s on the phone or in someone’s office. She may not be as demanding as I perceive, expecting to be given what she sees as her dues, with no patience for anyone who falls short. It’s not my place to criticise. Perhaps she is due much more than I know, and her standards are high because she believes people capable high levels of growth and success. I don’t know.

What I do know is she is constantly dissatisfied with the people around her, and I am constantly encouraged by the people around me, and I don’t think the people around us are different—I think our attitudes are.

doubles

I’m not saying, “Set your sights low so you can never be disappointed.” I’m saying, “Don’t assume people owe you anything.” Usually they don’t.

Life isn’t about paying and collecting debts, playing some abstract King of the Mountain. It’s about give and take. It’s about bringing doughnuts to the office or about doing a half hour of work for someone who’s swamped in deadlines. It’s about smiling and saying, “Good morning!” and actually listening to that girl across the hallway tell her saga of miscommunication with her realtor. It’s about about accepting with gratefulness and forgiving with grace and, in the end, realising that loving people is more important than running people.

My office is imperfect. If I searched for mean-spiritedness, I might find it.

But I don’t search.