The Importance of Self-Education

When I was a senior in high school our school newspaper sponsor, our English teacher, assigned me the job of editing the various articles that would be posted in the local town newspaper.  I’m pretty sure I got the job because I was the best speller.  We posted little ‘what’s been happening’ paragraphs by each grade’s representative reporter and occasionally published poetry.  One introverted girl who rarely spoke offered a pretty decent poem once that I thought would be excellent with just a change to a couple of words.

When I suggested it, though, she blew up.  You would have thought I suggested sacrificing her first born child on Satan’s altar!  It was my first negative reaction to my editing, and I decided if she wanted an inferior version of her work, then so be it.

Later, when I submitted some of my fiction for critique by editors and agents, I understood her reaction.  My writing is my baby!  Nobody knows my story – or poetry – or anything else – like I do.  Nobody can improve my deathless prose (and rhyme)!  Of course, none of it sold.

Then at work, I was assigned to teach some of the worst training material I had ever been forced to use.  I complained so much that of course, they then assigned me to revise it.  Trust me, there is nothing like technical writing for educating a writer.  I was paid to write it and therefore was forced to do it the way my supervisors wanted it, or be able to successfully argue that my way was better.  Since my supervisors generally had college degrees in education, they tended to win more often than I did, until I got some real experience and self-confidence under my belt.

It was very humbling to realize how much I didn’t know about the technical aspects of writing.  I never got to go to college and graduated from a very small rural school that was unable to provide much of an education.  During my first session of revising the training material, I was totally unprepared for the supervisors’ total dismissal of it and their orders to rewrite it.

I was astonished to discover they wanted me to return and write more training material, but one supervisor told my team bluntly that even though we weren’t perfect, the others who wrote essays for their applications were even worse, and read a few anonymous essays to prove it.  Over the years, my technical knowledge combined with my improved writing skills gained me the name recognition necessary to be allowed to unofficially edit many of the technical procedures we used in our jobs. When I sent in a needed correction to a section because it was either incorrect or made no sense as written, it was accepted without argument.  Many times, it was the way it was written that was the problem.

As a teacher of adults learning new complex procedures for dealing with our job, I quickly discovered that a huge problem was the technical language used.  The instructors, including me,  were experienced and used to the terms and acronyms used on the job.   Since I encouraged questions from the students, not to mention being able to read their expressions, I realized that learning a new language had to be the first step in every training session for new employees.

Once I retired, I didn’t worry about teaching new terms and acronyms to bewildered students or trying to simplify complex procedures into a step by step list that could be easily followed.  I was relieved, thinking that finally, FINALLY, I would have the time to concentrate on my fiction and see about finally getting published.  I began reading various professional writing blogs to see what was selling, by whom, and why.

It didn’t take long before my forehead began wrinkling just like my former students. What were all these terms these writers were using?  Sure, I could look them up in a dictionary, but they didn’t make any sense in the context they were used in the article I was reading.  Nuts.  I had to go back to the basics and learn THEIR language.  Why bother?  Because one very old saying still holds true: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

If you want to write without worrying about being paid for your efforts, you can do it however you wish.  If you want someone to give you money for it, it has to please them. If they ask you about it and you don’t understand the question, it’s up to you to learn the language they are using.  Very few professionals in the publishing business have the time or interest to educate an amateur for free.  They don’t have to.  Writers, even incredibly talented writers, are a dime a dozen.  Sure, some editors probably bitterly regret passing up J. K. Rowling, but life happens.

Don’t think that self-publishing offers a way around that problem.  I have a Kindle, and about 1500 ebooks so far, to go with my print library of several thousand soft and hardbacks.  With ebooks especially buyers can return the book if they don’t like it soon after they buy it.  Most can be previewed and if they are badly written the books may never be bought.

I once bought a book that started out sounding terrific, then evolved into such excruciatingly bad prose, I gave up on the rest of the book.  I was furious.  The book was only about a dollar, but I was angry because the promise of an interesting plot, fascinating characters, and plenty of action was ruined by poor grammar, worse spelling, and ridiculous punctuation.  The only time I have seen worse writing is work by writers who don’t believe in using capitalization, paragraph breaks, or punctuation at all.

I don’t want people criticizing my work for poor writing, so I am learning to write like the authors of books I like to read.  I hope someday to have my work praised by well-known professionals, and if I have to learn their language to understand their criticism, to be able to answer their questions about my work, and to discuss my work in order to improve it, I’ll do it.  I have the Internet.  I may live out in a rural area and still not have transportation and money to get to college classes, but I can still educate myself.  I must, if I want to engage in the conversations I want to, with professional writers and editors and publishers. It’s my responsibility to find a way to make my dreams come true.

 

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