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How right must you be when you write? April 3, 2012

Posted by mattfarmer in writing.
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Two, no three things, came through my email today that had me thinking. How right do you have to be as a writer? In my professional line of work I know you have to be 100% right, but in whose opinion are you right? And what parts of your writing has to be right?

The Creative Penn posted this today, or yesterday, I don’t know if my email feed is slow this week or not. The heading which jumped out at me was “Are Writers Allowed to Make Mistakes?” My second questions was – to whom are we asking this permission? A lot of good points were made in this blog post, some of which resonate with me, especially the time of writing done, see below.

The second thing which came to me today was this comic strip: ‘How to get massive amounts of comments on your article‘. I know that when I wrote a blog post with ‘zombies’ in the title, I got close to 100 hits on that post. Why? Probably because zombies were cool that week.

The third item was an email newsletter about copy writing which I received. The email was titled ‘Oh Hi There!’, and the first paragraph was this:

I wanted to make the header “O hai,” but I wasn’t sure you were into LOLcats. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a link: http://tinyurl.com/2vmp9g )

All three examples show different ways that writers can be ‘wrong’, one deliberately, one contextually. But, with the purpose they are trying to convey, are they in fact ‘wrong’?

Two recent examples of my professional work have made me think about this question. One was three revisions of a website, to which eventually it turned out that all was needed was for the client to find their voice, and for me to edit it and polish it up, rather than take their voice and make it sound how I thought they wanted it to sound. The first two drafts I produced were not wrong, from my point of view. It was clean copy, it said what they wanted to say, it was laid out in the style their web graphics designer had presented them. It had key words for SEO and Google tracking. The second draft had the same text but more information about the client as a person, to give weight to their years of experience. But the flavour was not there. So the 3rd and final time was the win, with their words, some punctuation and grammar checking. I used the two free revisions term in my contract with this client. But, we got to where we wanted it to be, where the CLIENT wanted it to be.

So, was I wrong, with my first two attempts?

Another example, and one which makes me kick myself, was a recent tender writing task I had. It was due on a Tuesday, so I had everything completed by the Monday and sent off. I go off to play basketball and arrive home at 10pm to find an email requesting a table of contents, and to please have it to us by first thing in the morning. Here I was, tired and sore (I tend to play rough basketball. Hey, you play until they blow the whistle and THEN call the foul…), late at night. And I was about to work on an important document. My support staff were awesome, and did a quick supply run for flavoured milk and cookies while I showered and prepared myself. I had the table of contents finished and looking good, and emailed it to them at 1am in the morning.

I forgot to actually number the pages in the footer. A tiny detail I know, and I am still kicking myself over, even now. But, is it okay to say- it was a surprise request for work, late on a Monday night with a very tight deadline, and I was all tired and post-basketball? Is it okay that I produced an awesome table of contents but just forgot that one little thing? (That one thing which I guarantee I will never forget again).

With my fiction, there is a lot more wriggle room for the concept of right. The story and the idea? That can be, improved, honed, sharpened up. I have some excellent writing friends who help with that process, coming at my work from a Joseph Campbell point of view, a sci-fi fantasy geek girl point of view, a slush-pile editor point of view. I am absolutely appreciative of their harsh but fair critiques.

But at the next stage of copy editing and line editing, why do these tasks exist? Shouldn’t the writer be the expert at this? Do you not need an understanding of grammar and punctuation, language and sentence structure to actually write? So, it is okay to be wrong in certain areas because the editors will pick it up anyway?

I know the theory of being close to your work and not being able to see everything. That advice experts give about putting your manuscript away for a month so you can come back to it with fresh eyes is great, but it is still going to go through an editor, eyes and mind that did not conceive the book or the idea.

At this point, I am making my writing the best it can be. I am producing, for my clients, the best that I can, what I think is good copy. It is only after the fact you find out how wrong or right it is, and then, that is a subjective view as well. Isn’t it?

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