March 3rd, 2007

It's Not What You Say, It's the Way That You Say It *

Like many people, I am susceptible to a well-placed compliment. (A well-intentioned compliment is even better—but also rarer.)


Perhaps more than many people, I am also sensitive to the reverse of a compliment. (Yes, it’s true—I’m a dweller. I dwell and dwell and dwell on things and pick them apart and concoct plans for excellent comebacks and then have imaginary arguments inside my head so I can plan excellent comebacks for all conversational contingencies. It’s a disease, certainly. But I do win a lot of arguments this way.)


I can’t say for sure whether writers are exposed to more compliments (and the  reverse thereof) than people in other fields—never having worked in another field. (I don’t count the retail purgatory of my school years.) But I can say that I have lots of editors who have, over the years, given me various compliments that I hoard (er—cherish).


And then there’s this guy.


He worked at a startup magazine, and I pitched him a few ideas. He bit; I got an assignment; I started work. Then I turned the story in and cheerfully went about my other business.


Then he phoned.


We talked.

We analyzed.

We went through the story, line by line, fact by fact, until I was left with a fistful of threads from what had, once upon a time, been a serviceable little tapestry.


I finished the story to his satisfaction (at long last), and proceeded to pitch again.


Again he bit. Again I worked. Again I turned the story in. Again he phoned. Again we went through the piece, line by line.


This time I was a little frustrated. His needs were so very specific, so very pre-planned, I almost wondered why he needed me at all. (Actually, this is exactly what I thought: “If you’re going to be that way about it, why don’t you write the damn story yourself?”)


But we finished the piece, and—I bet you can see where this is going—I pitched again.


It was my misfortune that I was working on the new piece for him at the same time I was working on a piece for a new market. A nice market—a dollar-a-word market. And the editor had told me exactly what she wanted: a story about the process that created a particular product. I interviewed and researched and wrote and revised and gave her exactly what she wanted.


And that’s when she phoned.


We had a long conversation, which boiled down to this: why on earth would I have filled the piece with so much detail about the product’s creation process?


(You think you’re confused? Imagine what a newbie freelance writer felt like!)


Naturally, Murphy’s Law of Emotional Breakdown being what it is, my other editor called that same afternoon. Naturally, he was not any more pleased with the draft I’d submitted to him than the schizophrenic harpy at the other magazine had been. Naturally, I started crying as soon as I hung up.


It’s been a good long time since an editor made me cry, I’m glad to say. But this whole sorry experience has been on my mind the last couple of weeks because I’ve been trying to finish up a story for that same persnickety guy. (The harpy dropped me after my second assignment. It was a good one: she asked me to write about the creation process of a particular product. Stupid me—I said to myself, “Aha! This time, she probably means it." She did not.)


On previous assignments for this guy, I wrestled and wrestled with the story until I had it just about down pat. And then he proceeded to tear it apart. But I’m a little bit wiser and a lot more experienced now. I did lots of interviews and a good bit of research; I even read the stories he’d written for the same magazine department. I even remembered that he declines all but one type of lede, so I rewrote mine to satisfy his lede need. But I didn’t kill myself over it. I looked it over a few times, read it out loud, and shipped it off.


It came back with lots of questions. I rewrote it—again, not killing myself. Just doing my job.


Then came the phone call. This time he had questions that I’d answered in the first draft--info he’d said didn’t belong in the story. (This is all part of his process.) We discussed everything thoroughly, and he said he was going to send the story back to me—liberally dosed with red comments and questions. Nothing new there, I told him. He laughed. “I always have more questions than answers,” he said.


Earlier this week he read my edited story to me, line by line, so we could discuss it. He’s a good editor, honestly—the pieces are strong and light and fun when he’s done with them. (Not that I thought they were so weak and flabby and drab when I turned them in.) But brother, does this guy need some private tutoring in the ways of tact.


And, I guess, I needed to really absorb the lesson that compliments are just not forthcoming from this guy.


Which brings me to my title: not only does this editor not compliment me (I can’t speak for his other writers—but boy, do I wonder!), the way he says things does seem to indicate that I am a complete idiot virtually incapable of wiping away my own drool.


Recently I heard a complaint from a friend about the guy she’s dating: he wasn’t complimenting her enough, she said, not telling her often enough how pretty she was. So maybe I am too dumb to wipe away my own drool—I was surprised to hear such a remark from her.


Compliments are great—well-placed and well-intentioned. But I don’t think a person should need a compliment. We should all be able to take our editors’ comments with a grain of salt, knowing that sure, for this particular story, we didn’t handle this or that as well as we should have (but that's why we have editors!); we should all be able to read behind the lines, and find the compliment buried in some poor doorknob guy’s mumbled conversation--it's the thought that counts, right? (And we know when we're wearing a flattering top by the way his eyes flicker--or, even better, becuase we looked in a mirror and saw it for ourselves.)  

*Okay--that's totally not true. What you say is also of mega importance. Despite my previous entry on the meaninglessness of words.

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