Writing well is not negotiable


I used to love the first day of school, way back in the Stone Age when I was in grade school. The first day of school meant getting a stack of new books that would be mine for the school year. Oh, how I loved my books! It was especially great when the teacher handed out brand new, never-before-used books to us. The pages were pearly white and never separated, the cover all shiny and undented, and the aroma of ink and pulp would tickle the nose. Ah, it was heaven!

Always, the teacher would launch into a litany about how sacred books were. We must care for them with our lives. We must never write on them or let our dogs chew on them. Or else! They all had to be taken home and covered that first night, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

It would take me hours. I’d grab a stack of paper grocery bags, a pair of scissors and a magic marker and fashion out custom-made book covers for each and every textbook. First, I cut down one of the bag corners, then along the bottom until the heavy paper laid out flat. I’d flop the book in the middle, then fold down the top and fold up the bottom until it was exactly the book’s height. I’d take the book off the paper to get those new folds perfect. The folds had to be perfectly lined up and even for it to look good, so this part was important. Then, with the book back on the now-folded-to-height paper to get an idea of how much it would take to wrap around. I’d slip the front cover of the book into the paper sleeve, then try my best to get that cover tight when I slipped the back cover into the sleeve on the other end. The finishing touch was the subject of the book carefully written on each cover. There’s English, Science and the dreaded Social Studies and Math books, all uniformly covered in ugly brown. I was pleased and maybe even a little proud. My books were safe.

Each year, those textbooks were God. If it was in a schoolbook, it was The Truth, it was perfect, and it was unquestionable. Each book held thousands of little keys to what life is made of and I relished every moment spent reading those books. Books were IT.

I loved it when I went to college and the books were all mine to keep forever and ever. It took quite a bit to not cover those books with paper grocery bags too. To my horror, instructors said to highlight the important parts, write in the margins and dog-ear the pages. No! That is desecration! So, I didn’t. I couldn’t. I still have all of my texts from all of my courses, as evidenced by the photo above. (Trust me, that’s only a small sample of the hundreds of books I have. They are stacked and piled everywhere!) They are all there, at my fingertips, should I need their wisdom again.

I don’t think it was until college that it sunk in that people wrote those books. I marveled at that. I loved to write, but a book seemed a massive undertaking. I was a good writer, but still, every paper I turned in came back with red ink all through it and despite the “A” for the earned grade. Commas circled, a word or two marked misspelled, more than a few paragraph slashes and the inevitable, often unintelligible comment scrawled in the margin decorated my submitted papers. All that red ink told me, blasted to me, that I probably ain’t got what it takes to write a book. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. I had a major end-of-term paper returned with not a bit of red ink and a wonderful, glowing comment at the end. And, to my surprise, my thesis came back the same way. I can write! I can write perfect copy! Trust me, I am surprised still because, I admit freely and without reserve, back then, I rarely proofed my stuff. I learned that books had a measure of fallibility and that I could produce as much validity as any other author. Lesson learned.

It’s all this that comes rushing back when I read a newspaper with glaring errors, whether it be a misspelling or a word used wrongly or a run-on sentence. Stupid, elementary errors that should never have made it through the process and into print irk me to no end. What the hell is the editor doing? Is he asleep? How could he let crappy copy go to press? Aren’t editors supposed to, well, edit? Is the newspaper not worth decently written copy? The least you can do is have some respect for your readers by, at the very least, running the grammar check before sending it off to the printer. Do your job!

You see, if you write, write well. That is not negotiable. If you write for others to read, it must be as perfect as it can be. If you want to be taken seriously, then you will heed my words. Nothing, absolutely nothing, weakens your words, your points, your ideas, your value more than stupid errors.

This rant was inspired by Annetta Ribkin, author of Not Nice and Other Understatements.  If I haven’t spanked your patties enough about writing well, she posted her own rant today at Word Webbing. You owe it to yourself to give it a read.
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