In the spirit of not starting the new year focusing on the negative:
- We’re all still alive. The wettest we’ve been in a hundred years,perhaps, but not dead.
- There are months and months of new time stretching ahead of us in which we may win the lottery/complete an Airfix/get married/buy a puppy/sell a novel.
- I drew more things in December than I drew in the entire rest of 2012.
That out of the way, it’s time for my first therapeutic rant of 2013. Because I’m a communicator by trade – if I’ve got something, I communicate it (you lucky people), and here in fact is a nice lead-in to the basis of my topic.
Imagine you’re a butcher. And you’re a good one. Your entire life revolves around your skill with a wickedly sharp cleaver and a set of personalised gralloching knives. You have fancy gold-edged certificates on the wall in your shop and people mention your sausages on the telly. That kind of butcher. The kind of guy who can sell ham by the single slice and still cover the rent of his shop before he runs out of hock. You may even have a little thingy above the door next to the dingly bell and the fly-curtain that says “By Royal appointment”. Get the idea? Right.
So one day a guy walks into your shop and prowls up and down in front of the innards and the beef skirt cuts, looking pensive. An ordinary guy: and this is important, he’s not a Michelin-starred chef or a fellow meat-slinger. Just another customer. He’s a train driver, actually. Got a peaked cap, railway badges on his jacket and a high-vis in his pocket. In movies he’d have coal-stains on his face, his sleeves rolled up, and probably sound like Dick Van Dyke. You hustle over to serve him, and damnit, if he doesn’t say, in superior tones:
“Hmm, well, I suppose the steak isn’t cut badly, but I could do it better.”
You’re flabbergasted. This guy looks like he just walked out of a Thomas the Tank Engine reinactment and suddenly he’s an expert on butchery. You give him another chance, perhaps ask him a few questions. Get to know him. Maybe he’s just a misguided enthusiast with limited social skills and no sense of self-preservation, given that he’s basically insulting a man who gets paid to swing a blade that can cut through bone. You’re prepared to be magnanimous.
“I tell you what,” he says, producing half a dead cow (he was keeping this in the same place video-game characters keep all their different guns/swords/magical items when they’re running around. Don’t ask stupid questions) “I’ll show you.”
So he whacks Betty Bovine on the counter and proceeds to cut her up using a blunt penknife. “Here you go. Sell that.” He passes you what looks like an unused prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “It’s brilliant. Much better than what you do.”
At this point I would like to give you your freedom as a reader to imagine any number of potential outcomes, and they may involve as much blood (human or animal) or swearing as you like.
But the truth (and the reason for the colourful shaggy dog story above) is that this happens to me every day in my line of work (only with less tripe. Or maybe not), and I simply cannot understand the rationale that drives otherwise perfectly normal, intelligent people to suddenly believe they can write for a living just because they can type or use a pen. As I may have mentioned on Twitter earlier this week, just because I have a calculator it doesn’t automatically mean I’m suddenly a mathematical genius. But there seems to be a remarkable blind spot in recognising good communication as a profession that deserves the same respect as any other.
As part of my job, I am paid to be an expert in my field of copywriting and editing content (for which I am grateful). Butchers are paid to be experts in theirs. But no butcher expects his customers to bring their own homemade sausages into his shop and demand that he sells them instead of what he’s made. Yet it seems to be status quo that anyone can walk into my office, hand me something they’ve written and tell me I can’t possibly even entertain the idea of changing a single word of the hallowed text. Even if, in my opinion as a paid expert, it is absolute ballcocks and should be kept from its intended audience for their own protection.
(Just to be clear, here, I’m in no way knocking anyone’s right to write whenever, wherever and however much they wish. Everyone should have the freedom to write. It’s brilliant, it’s free, and it can bring much happiness. What I’m saying is, if you wanted to submit your first novel to a professional publishing house, would your approach be to march up to the editor-in-chief and say “I don’t care what you think. My novel is brilliant and I won’t change a single syllable, no matter what you and your twenty years of publishing experience have to say.”? Maybe it would. In which case, good luck with that.)
Because anyone who has ever tried to get a novel or even a short story published professionally knows that writing well and writing for an audience are apparently remarkably difficult things to do. Think about it for a moment. The percentage of people who actually write creatively for a living and have their books on the shelves in Waterstone’s is remarkably small compared to the number of aspiring authors who try to fit in their creative writing around a day job or three. The amount of turn-downs the average author will get in the course of their life? Astronomical.
Now, I don’t pretend in the least to be the living end on the subject of writing: hell, I’m only a minor writing practitioner and part-time internet whinger. All I’m asking for is not to be treated as if my profession is redundant simply because word processing is freely available. That’s frankly insane. It’s like giving everyone an electron microscope and then saying “Look, now scientists are unnecessary! We’re all scientists! Pass me that cure for cancer, I’ll be done in a jiffy…”
Be the best train driver you can be. Be the world’s best butcher. Be the greatest scientist and maybe even cure cancer. Be the name everyone inserts at the end of the phrase: “Ooh, you know, if you want advice on such-and-such, you really should talk to…”
Just, please. Don’t be the guy who thinks he knows everything there is to know about writing just because he can use Microsoft Word* without breaking his own thumbs.
*other word processing softwares are available: thumbs are not provided.