By Tim Hayes [www.timhayesconsulting.com]
In the film “Amadeus,” the Emperor of Austria, having enjoyed the public debut of one of Mozart’s masterpieces, mulls over what he’s just heard and offers this sterling bit of musical insight: “There are too many notes.”
Can you imagine? This overstuffed, overpowdered dandy telling the greatest musical genius in history that his composition has “too many notes?” Mozart, nonplussed, bows to the buffoon. His livelihood is on the line, after all. But that doesn’t mean he has to listen to such absurd, insulting advice.
The brotherhood and sisterhood of writers has to occasionally deal with lesser lights giving them free advice on their craft, as well. Anyone who thinks he or she can survive as a professional writer without taking a verbal thrashing every now and then is living in Wonderland. If a writer isn’t born with a thick skin, he or she had better develop one in a hurry.
Two personal stories illustrate both sides of this particular coin. In the first, we travel back to the summer of 1981 and the newsroom of the late, great Pittsburgh Press newspaper, where I spent 10 weeks as a cub reporter intern on the way toward earning my bachelor’s degree in journalism – and where I met Henry.
Henry was a real newspaperman. Think “Lou Grant.” He’d covered the big stories, he’d proven his chops hundreds of times over, and now he ran this major metro’s city desk. And he didn’t suffer substandard work lightly, especially from a carpetbagging bunch of greenhorn college kids like me. As one of my first big assignments, I was sent to cover the discovery of a missing person’s corpse one late-June afternoon, and gutlessly danced around the police boundaries, trying to capture just enough information to file the story for the final editions that evening.
After returning to the newsroom and writing the story, I sent it to Henry for proofing. What happened next will be forever seared into my brain. He lit into me in front of 25 other reporters in the open newsroom, loudly peppering me with questions about the story for which I had no answers, challenging me on the structure of the story, screaming that I had completely missed the lead (the opening paragraph that presents the most important information), and generally calling into question my presence in his newsroom.
But then, as my equilibrium slowly began to return and the room stopped spinning, he pointed me back to my desk and sent a message privately to my computer screen, instructing me on who to call for the missing information. Yet I didn’t feel insulted. I felt like the greenhorn college kid I was, a novice reporter who had just learned a valuable real-life/real-time lesson unlike anything my professors had ever taught me in a classroom – and one that’s remained with me for nearly 30 years.
The second example, however, turned out differently. While working at a company top-heavy with engineers, I was summoned to one such engineer’s office to collect comments on a relatively minor article for the employee magazine. After unleashing his red marker all over the draft, he finally looked at me and said, “You know, Tim, I’m an engineer. See those degrees on the wall? I had to really work hard for them. My job takes a lot of intelligence and skill. But, let’s face it – anybody can write.”
I’m no Mozart, Lord knows, but I knew that I knew more about writing than this guy ever would. So I simply replied, “Are there any factual errors?” When he said that there were not, I stood up, said, “Well then, I’ll consider this draft approved,” and walked out.
A tough hide comes with the territory. Writers know this. But there’s a difference between being asked to accept constructive, respectful criticism and being subjected to cold, offensive insults. I and my fellow writers are professionals too, and deserve to be treated as such. See that degree on the wall?
Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting