The gifts of writing

1979: Marbo Caves, Guam.

It has been a lot of years — more than 30 — since I have submitted a freelance article to an editor. The last time I did, as a senior year college student at the University of Guam, my approach was very different.

I typed my story, which was about an education program on the Northern Marianas island of Rota, on a manual typewriter. (I typed it several times, in fact, because I was unwilling to submit it with even a single typo or blot of Wite-Out.) I dropped my finished article in the mail at the campus post office. Several weeks later, when it was published in the Islander magazine section of the Pacific Daily News, I was overcome to see my words, and my name, in print.

For the past 21 years, as the editor of Raising Arizona Kids magazine, I have been on the other side of that experience. I’m the one who creates opportunities for writers, the one who makes decisions about whether something is worthy of pubication, the one who nurtures and encourages writers but also reluctantly wields the power to crush their confidence. So I approached my recent independent freelance assignment — a story about EthiopiaStudio, a design studio for sixth-year architecture students at ASU — with a great deal of reverence and care.

I thought about all the things that writers could do to make an editor’s job easier:

• I kept meticulous notes to show that I’d verified the spelling of names and checked my facts.

• I listed live links to websites that verified my statistics and the titles of anyone I quoted.

• I included full contact information for everyone I interviewed for the story.

• I gave a great deal of thought to the core message of my story, and kept refining each draft so that focus was clear.

• I read several months’ worth of the magazine in which my article will appear. I looked for clues to the magazine’s stylebook and tailored my mechanics accordingly.

• I carefully considered the audience the publication reaches and the section of the magazine in which my story will appear. That helped me figure out what to include from among hours of interviews and notebooks filled with notes — and what to leave out.

• I made sure the final article was one word under the requested word count, even though I felt the shortened version was a mere shell of my original, twice-as-long draft.

• I had seven people read it to give me their feedback.

• Each time I almost thought I “had it,” I forced myself to read the draft out loud. It’s amazing what you find when you slow yourself down to do that.

Writing is not easy and the time you must invest to get it right would make any ROI-focused business manager cringe. But the gifts are many: the joy of immersion in a compelling narrative, the privilege of time with inspiring people, the excitement of discovery, the satisfaction of overcoming fear and frustration, the relief of closure on a months-long project, the heady anticipation of seeing your words in print and the quiet gratitude that comes with knowing that somewhere, someone’s life will be different because you took the time to tell a story.

July 2010: Soddo, Ethiopia.

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One response to “The gifts of writing

  1. You are so conscientious — I wish more writers took such care.

    Your process is as much about self-preservation as care for the editor’s time, I think. In my first days as a newspaper reporter, when I found time-pressured editors didn’t always catch everything I had lazily overlooked, I determined to submit copy that was as clean as possible. No one reads a poorly composed article and blames the editor for missing mistakes. And when you don’t force an editor to spend her time and energy fixing basic errors such as spelling and syntax, she has that much more time for really bringing out the best in the article.
    Editors don’t exist to make bad writing good. Their job is to make good writing great.

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