Out of My Depth

Today was the weekly meeting of the staff and reporters of the Blue Banner, my college newspaper. The paper’s copyeditor, a no-nonsense young woman with freckles, stood at the head of the room with arms crossed and delivered a knowledgeable and withering lecture on Banner guidelines and AP style. (So far at least two young Banner staff members have been impressively professional in their roles at the paper.) I took notes nonstop, guiltily realizing how much I still have to learn. I am a generalist and business writer, not a journalist. I even asked to have the prerequisite class for writing for the paper, Newswriting, waived, as I am taking it this semester, concurrently. But I am just now learning how to write a lead, just now learning the inverted pyramid. I am learning fast, but still out of my depth.

And all I can say so far about what I have learned so far is this: How did I make it this far without this information?

Until today I didn’t even really know how to use quotations journalistically, which really just means effectively, for maximum impact.

I’m not having a crisis of confidence. But I do see that perhaps one of the reasons that I have secretly sometimes felt like a fraud as a writer (a common human condition, I think, one that haunts even reasonably confident and experienced people) is that while I am experienced and naturally talented, I am not yet fully formally educated in my field of expertise. The more I learn, the more I formally understand why my instincts lead me certain ways — and also how limited my knowledge is, and how many kinds of writing there are, and how richly the styles might inform each other when the writer is conversant in several of them.

After the meeting we broke out into groups to talk to our editors. I’m a Lifestyles writer, so I walked to my group in the corner of the room to get my latest assignment. But instead of giving me one, my editor, a twentysomething blond woman in jeans, said only that we needed to talk. I told her that I’d meet her in the Banner office. The others were handed notecards with their assignments and drifted away.

Oh my GOD. Honestly, I was afraid. Nothing in her manner led me to believe she was going to meet me to hug me and tell me that my profile of Professor Chadwick was the most amazing thing the paper had ever seen. And from the copyeditor’s succinct and well-delivered lecture knew I’d committed quite a few sins, such as using italics.

And indeed, the copy of my profile that my editor carried as she lit a cigarette and we stepped outside to the courtyard (outside! was I really that bad, that we needed privacy?) was covered in red marks. My heart hammered. I felt real shame. I held my notebook humbly, ready to listen and take my lumps.

I pride myself on going above and beyond what my clients expect, on bringing real satisfaction and providing value, even on occasionally blowing people’s minds. I’d never walked out into a sunny courtyard for my corrections.

But it wasn’t so bad, really. I just got a brief and friendly lecture on proper newswriting style. I was told not use periods of ellipsis. I quickly pointed out that I’d only used them to show that I had snipped words from a quote, and wasn’t that OK? It was, but I had also used them to end a quote. And she was absolutely right, I had. I’d used says and not said. I’d used a person from the college paper as a source for a quote, an ethical no-no. I’d editorialized, giving my opinion on the professor’s image as it appeared on her faculty web page (however my editor liked that, and kept it in despite the copywriter’s red scrawl).

And though she didn’t call me on it, only today in the cafeteria lunchroom did I learn how one properly closes a quote, often with a comma rather than a period. I had known that, but hadn’t known how to apply it in one tricky instance and had done the wrong thing.

These are all tricks from journalistic bag. And as an information and news junkie, I deeply appreciate good journalism. But I have no taste for the work. In fact I stayed away from a formal writing education for years because I dislike the field so intensely. But while it is bad-tasting medicine, nonetheless it seems to be curing ills I never knew I had.

In writing about Professor Chadwick, I assumed that as a single mother of two attending college, she endured years of poverty. I was committing another big no-no, making assumptions. (Turns out her family had helped her out, and while times were hard, she and her kids got by in safety and support.) I was also projecting my own financial struggles as a student (and those of all the students I know who are not in some way subsidized) onto her. But I was also being a draftsperson, an arranger, imposing order rather then seeking story.

I do no create well. I do not care to dig for information, for the world of information is huge and I don’t have the instincts to sift through it. I am creative, but my creativity is best exercised as an arranger.

And journalism disappoints me because so often the reporter is given a story that seems to me to be far too complex for 70 lines’ worth of words. Professor Chadwick isn’t just a funny lady with a cool office door who let me talk to her; she is a human being with amazing worlds hidden inside her. I feel I could never do her and her story justice, and I’ve felt that way before, during my early work of writing features for the alternative weekly market. I feel that the medium is not so much limited as it is too troubling for me. I find journalism exhausting. I feel like I only skim the surface of the surface of the surface, or, in the other extreme, am given an assignment to write about a local fair or suchlike and find it a simplistic exercise that interests me very little. So I feel either overwhelmed or bored.

But I’m happy to learn my way in this new world. I think that my writing is lively and readable enough when I work for it to be that way, but I tend to make overlong constructions and love my dashes — you know those dashes I love so, that I put my asides in, a choice which does not always serve communication well; also I am overfond of long sentences glued together with the semicolon.

These aren’t really habits I want to hang on to.

I don’t like to feel ignorant, but I love to know what I am doing. And that takes work and the passage through the uncomfortable feeling of not-knowing. I am sure the professor profile that will appear in the paper next week will be perfectly fine. But again Darmok’s fine truth comes home: Ancora imparo. I am still learning.

I am picturing that tough little copywriter angrily scrawling on on my article. On my italics, on my periods of ellipsis I would later deny as Peter denied Jesus, on my editorializing. And having every right to do so. Oh my god, someone turned in some defective writing, and that someone was me.

Can I find my kinky streak of loving to be corrected, for I know it makes me better at what I do? Oh yes. Right there it is.

PS: I have removed my entry about Professor Chadwick, since it was posted here most rudely without her permission. Bloggers: You don’t need an ethics class or a cross copyeditor to know that simple manners dictate that it’s nice to ask first.

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