Writing: My Craft, Endangered

Note: I wrote this post a month ago as an exercise in therapeutic writing. I decided then that I wouldn’t publish it, but I believe it provides a valuable counterpoint to yesterday’s post. Before writing me off as a shameless snob for this post, make sure you read the preceding one, entitled “Writing: My Craft, Enlivened.”

I’ve been a bit frustrated lately. I had decided not to express it on the blog, however, because it would crush me if anyone I worked with, or anyone else for that matter, mistakenly took my frustrations as a negative comment about my job. I absolutely love my job, my team, my leaders, and everything else about the place. Seriously, that’s not an exaggeration. At this point in my life, the most exciting prospect for me would be to retire from there in 30 years or so. I can’t imagine wanting to leave.

Now, that said, I want to share some thoughts about what I do for a living. I’m a writer. I’m not a salesperson who writes. I’m not a schoolteacher who writes. I’m not an auto mechanic who writes. I’m not a park ranger or busboy or accountant or elephant trainer who writes. I am a writer. That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve done every day for eight years, and that’s what I want to do eight hours a day, forty hours a week.

I know where commas are supposed to go. I know what a split infinitive is. I know why one word works better than another in certain situations. I know how to pluck a single thought from the garden of ideas, nurture it, develop it, and then paint a picture with words so that others can see it just as I do. I also know when to let a good idea die, pruning out the “good” from the “great.” Moreover, I know how to lead others to do the same, coaching other writers to hone their skills just as my mentors have coached me.

It’s not magic nor guesswork, accident nor luck. It’s a skill that is one part natural talent and one bigger part opportunity and training. It is an ability refined in the fires of harsh edits, rejection letters, failed manuscripts, and shouting matches with bullish editors.

Driving a car doesn’t qualify me to repair transmissions on the weekends. Grilling a hamburger doesn’t qualify me to open a restaurant. Playing with my iPhone doesn’t qualify me to write programs for it, develop marketing campaigns to sell it, or design the next model or product line. Steve Jobs won’t take my calls, no matter how much I love the iPhone.

Writing is perceived as different, however. Writing seems to be the one occupation that everyone thinks they can do in addition to their own jobs. Of course, I mean professional, for-pay, mass-market writing here. I have nothing against writing hobbyists, bloggers, or those who craft an especially powerful letter. Writing as a hobby is a glorious, educational enterprise that expands the mind far more than an episode of Survivor ever could. The world is shrinking, and we could all use a new generation of brilliant communicators. And yet, writing a blog doesn’t qualify someone for professional writing any more than my occasional notebook doodling qualifies me to be a graphic designer.

And sadly, business leadership often gets involved, as well, further muddying the waters. If you are a working, professional writer—trained, tried, and true—then you probably know how to turn a phrase better than your accountant boss does. And yet, he or she may still demand their version. Nothing kills a writer’s creative spark faster than reviewing his own work in print—and seeing the dark shadow of another’s voice all over the page. (True story: The head of the magazine department at my first publishing job was the CFO.)

This is one of the downsides of professional writing, and it is a lesson that new writers should learn well. Writing as art is becoming a tough sell in today’s world. “Everyone can write” is becoming subtly synonymous with “Everyone is a writer.” It’s not.

This makes it especially difficult for those of us who actually have to hire writers for mass market work. As soon as I put a job posting up for a writing position, I just stand back and let the wave of garbage hit me in the face. I always put the disclaimer, “Previous publishing experience required,” but to no avail. As soon as the word “writer” hits the job board, waves of journal entries and blog posts fill my inbox as “writing samples” from plumbers, teachers, housewives, gardeners, and biologists. Seriously, I once posted a job for a Bible study writer and asked only for those with seminary and ministry experience; a working biologist with a Ph.D. and absolutely no published work applied and sent home-brew writing samples. He didn’t get the job.

Fellow writers, I fear that our craft is in danger. The only solution, in my opinion, is to make our work more outstanding, more excellent, more unique than ever before. The market, both in print and online, is flooded with pages and pages of text, where haphazard words and half thoughts are taking the place of worthy writing and valuable stories. So, make your work stand out. Be the tree among the weeds. Let good writing live on.


6 Responses to Writing: My Craft, Endangered

  1. Robert says:

    Great thoughts on both of these posts. Blogging is an incredible tool; it’s changed the way our society communicates. A lot of people visit blogs before they visit news sites.

    But it’s also a bit of a curse for writers, like you mention. Everyone should write, absolutely. The lines get blurry, though, when a blogger or writer-by-hobby starts to edit or approve my writing. I love constructive criticism. But, honestly, I don’t like to be edited by anyone who isn’t a writer or editor. And, in the last few years, it seems more and more people consider themselves professional writers simply because they click submit at WordPress or Blogspot.

    The publishers and magazines can tell the difference, though, and I guess that’s all that really matters.

  2. Brent says:

    Easy, Champ.

    The craft isn’t endangered by bloggers or texters or anybody else any more than musicians are threatened by the pawn shop teenager plucking away in their room or Wii Rock Band. See, like any art, it’s got a starting point. That talent must be developed and honed over time. The good ones, like Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Doestoyevsky all rise to the top.

    So I say, “The more the merrier.” There’s plenty of drivel all around on the web (I know because I create a good deal of it) but I think folks can tell the good from the bad…and certainly appreciate the good when they see it.

    But it has to start and develop. That’s what great art does. So, yes, you should strive for excellence. But not because you want to be a great writer. Do it for the beauty of the art form. Yes. Your motivation matters.

    And also keep in mind that any art is subjective. Some people love Vonnegut with all his choppy writing and scattered thoughts. Some people love Stephen King with all his foibles because he tells a mean tale. Some people think Kerouac really matters. Even if I think Capote was right when he said, “That’s not writing that’s just typing.” Appreciate the craft…in all the forms it takes from the kindergartner’s first sentence to the high schooler’s drama to the college literary magazine’s taking itself too seriously. It’s all in process, just like your early works likely pale in comparison to what you’re doing now. We need to encourage more folks to do it, IMHO.

  3. Allen says:

    Like I said, these two posts work together. One shows my hopeful optimism, the other shows my cynicism. As is usually the case, the truth no doubt lies somewhere in the middle.

    And I should be clear that the Endangered post is more a reaction to writing hobbyists who believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are fit for prime time and have no need of editing. That’s just not the case. No writer ever produces anything that is fit to print in its first draft.

    For example, below are three examples of writing that have hit my desk this year alone. These were written within book drafts, and both authors (I have two clips from one author) resisted the editing process. I should note that these are presented EXACTLY as they appeared in manuscript form, including the text-based smiley faces:

    “Before devoting myself to full pursuit of service of all that is purely and openly Christian, through formal ministry and passionate teaching of God’s word, I was an administrative professional and an elementary school principal.”

    “My parting shot to you regarding debt is this…’Debt is simply stealing from your future to pay for your present.’ (…and for those of you who only speak text) OBTW, I H8 DEBT WAMH!!”

    “To conclude this section, I’m about to drop some old-school Nike on you, so back up… whether you go with the TSP or Roth IRA (or both), my simple advice to you is “Just Do It!” (You feelin’ me dawg?? 🙂 )”

    Fortunately, neither of these authors actually work here.

  4. Allen, my dawg, why you be bustin on my writin sample?

  5. wellsmone says:

    Interesting Read! Very detailed blog,thanks for sharing

  6. uninvoked says:

    You have to start out somewhere though. Most people aren’t born with a pencil in one hand, furiously scribbling. Maybe that housewife is on her way to being a best selling author, and that letter was her first painful step.

    I remember my first attempt at publishing, the publisher sent me a personal letter that stopped just short of laughing at me. I’ve gotten 4 published short stories out now, an honorable mention in a contest, some lovely critiques, and a request for another story. Not pro yet, but definitely past that first step.

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