By Rebecca T. Dickinson
Advice is thrown at writers every day. It matters not if the writer is a professional with his or her own flair and grasp of grammar, or someone like me, who is at the starting line. Sometimes it feels like every breath I draw is the amount of advice I receive as a writer. The advice of which I write is not the critique of an individual work, but of how to better the person, the writer, into a product or art.
Different kinds of advice come to the ears of writers. The trick is to decipher the meaning and if it is good advice. Some words about the writer or the style—whether from family or editors—feel like steel beams thrown at a cotton stomach. Behind those words either lays the truth to mold a better writer or, on a few occasions, someone who has bad intentions. Temptation to lock out the world puts its arm around the writer, and says, “Hey, you’re not that good. Go lie down on the couch.”
An even worse scenario is crying over the keyboard. That stubborn determination of I’ll show them grabs hold. It consumes the writer’s mind and makes a worse writer of a person. In the moment of sullen disbelief, the writer writes when he or she should not. Before the situation ends, the writer sends an e-mail, submission to a literary magazine, or response to an editor without proofreading. Sullen soaked words poison the screen of the receiver.
In the summer of 2008, I graduated from the University of South Carolina. I wanted to become a journalist. I had big dreams of capturing the hot stories, and of making a name for myself in the newspaper business. Before I was offered my first job in May, I started work as a freelance sports writer for my hometown newspaper. I also wrote articles about the skids in the economy and the skyrocketing prices of chicken, pork and beef. Another news editor requested suggestions from the editor of that newspaper about the freelance writers he used. The editor wrote the freelance writers’ names and put a recommendation below each one. Under my name, the editor typed needs work, but serviceable.
I closed out of the e-mail in which all of the freelance writers’ addresses were copied. Tears came to my eyes followed by the thought of I’ll show him. Only later did I realize a truth lived behind the editor’s statement. I had written an article about the economy and how it affected local citizens in the town. I had left out questions with a man who could not work due to disability. My major was history. I knew how to write, but journalism skills were lacking. I did not want to admit it.
I found it difficult to ask tough questions. My parents had raised me as a good South Carolina girl, to not ask about someone’s personal finances, and to not hurt others’ feelings. I’d always cared about what my family thought. I was scared, but I had to run over that past to become a journalist.
Timid and fear are two sticks in the hands of a writer who needs paddles to maneuver his or her canoe across the lake to professionalism. The weakness only persists when the writer lets it. The warning comes through words of advice, whether soft or made of steel, to test the writer’s worth. It is not about a specific piece a person writes, but the general flair and presentation of the writer. Perhaps a writer’s greatest test is the ability to mold his or herself into art.