Dear all editors everywhere,
I recently had the privilege of guest-hosting a writing challenge on The Daily Post, WordPress.com’s site dedicated to the art and craft of blogging. I was honored by the editorial team’s confidence in me, that my name came up when they brainstormed writers to invite, and though they did not ask me to guest-edit, as a private show of gratitude I committed to putting myself on their side of the desk for the duration of the week-long challenge. I traded my pen for reading glasses, and I vowed to read every submission to the challenge, not as a casual reader, but as a would-be-editor curating content for a website.
Within one day, I sent an email to the lead WordPress editor, and I wrote: “I bow down to you and all editors of the world.” Because editors, I do.
I was shocked by the patience, lucidity, and stamina your job requires. I was thrilled by every submission – readers are responding! writers are writing! – yet my head ached from ciphering symbols on a pixellated screen; from trying to find my place in a piece with no paragraphs; from wading through unnecessary parentheticals, misspelled words, and four paragraphs of explanation before the meat of a story began. My head ached from recognizing mistakes I continue to make in my own writing.
I realized quickly, within 30 submissions, why you give writers the tips you give, the tips that until this experience I dismissed as too simple. Punctuation? Please. There’s got to be a bigger secret than that. But these editor tips I read over and over again – always the same, from all the editors, often in what has seemed to me a resigned and tired tone – I understand at a visceral level now. When I was on my 78th submission of the day, these simple second-grade basics meant the difference between me reading further or glancing at the first sentence and clicking the little “x” to close the tab:
- Spelling, grammar, punctuation: Mistakes here were jarring. Every misspelled word jolted me out of the piece and into my living room. A narrative had to be really strong to overcome mistakes that could have easily been corrected before submission. Until experiencing this from your side of the screen, I was careless with mistakes in my work as well. No more.
- White space: I don’t think I’ve ever been a bigger fan of the paragraph than I am now. My heart died a little each time text filled the screen without any breaks. I tried to read the first few stream of consciousness submissions, but the strain of keeping track of where I was distracted me, and I gave up.
- Title: A boring title might not make me shut down a piece, but an exciting one will sure make me happy to open it – and keep reading (as with My Descent into “Mom Jeans” on Becoming Vivid).
Beyond those fundamentals, after reading so many submissions, I came to appreciate the ones that were different, that made me sit up in my chair and pay attention. Like when one blogger wrote from the point of view of a calculator (Alexia Jones: The Evil Calculator), and another made me want to say goddamned a lot (Forgotten Correspondence: The 6th of March 1997 – Fishkill, New York). I wanted to kiss the writers who made me laugh (Emily Schleiger: Him; Merissa Bergen: Frying Pans and a Knife), were brief but beautiful (A Full Cup of Tea: Haiku Trio), who taught me something new (Flour Mill Reflections: Egg UKO), or left a lasting image in my mind (The Silver Leaf Journal: Three Red Chairs).
In other words, I experienced the truth in those craft tips that appear in every writing book, in every workshop, on every editor’s pages:
- Surprise us with a different point of view
- Language matters
- Funny is good
- Be concise!
- Teach me
- Show don’t tell
Until this experience, I had only seen the finished product of your work as editors: the perfect pieces, the fresh voices, the error-free, beautifully spaced narratives with captivating titles, proper pacing, concision, and imagery, and voice. I now understand your joy when a writer provides all those things, when on submission number 473 your forehead relaxes, and your mouth twitches, and you take off your glasses and lean back in your chair and allow yourself a full smile. Your patience, and clear head, and stamina have paid off, and now you can provide a writer and the world with the same joy you just felt when you read that submission and said, “This is good. This is really good.”
Wearing your hat for a week – or at least the brim of it – has made me appreciate these tips you keep giving us. As a writer, I am an advocate for writers, and I understand now that you are, too. You want to read and promote good work – that’s why you do the work you do. You want more than anything for writers to write well. I will do my best to improve my craft, to give you good work, and in the meantime, thank you. Thank you for your patience, your clear head, and your stamina.
The guest-piece I refer to in this post is A Drought or a Flood – The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge: Object.