Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sometimes They Just Want "Jingle Bells"

"I wish I could figure out what I'm doing wrong! What do they want?" My friend, who takes business writing assignments from an online clearinghouse, had just been venting over a couple clients who (though they'd accepted and paid her) had rated her product as "poor" or merely "average." My friend, a well-published writer, as well as a former magazine editor, was understandably beside herself. She has never accepted anything less than excellence from herself--and, in fact, the website had given these same assignments their highest rating.

I tried to reassure her. It's always easier to see no problem when it isn't your own writing that seems to be under attack. "I don't think you're doing anything wrong," I told her. "They're your customers, and they have the prerogative of being unreasonable."

I pointed out she was working from a very short posting that offered only the barest of instructions, and she'd had no opportunity to ask questions for clarification. I also suggested her clients had possibly given scant attention to their evaluations. Some of what I was saying may have helped a bit, but as we left the restaurant after our weekly writing critique, my friend still seemed woebegone and frustrated.

It didn't occur to me at the time, but another obstacle she's up against is that her clients aren't "word people." They aren't other writers, editors, or agents. They are all simply "writing consumers," from other industries. Their ideas of what constitutes good writing may differ wildly from reality.

Nonetheless, the more I mulled this over as I drove home, the more I saw parallels with conventional writing submissions. Sometimes I don't even recognize my own submission, from comments I've gotten back from editors or agents, and I wonder what on earth they were actually reading.

It reminded me of Lucy in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. She is listening to Schroeder play the piano, and she asks him to play "Jingle Bells." Schroeder offers a beautiful rendition, and Lucy snaps, "That's not 'Jingle Bells.' Play 'Jingle Bells!'"

Schroeder plays another version, equally lovely, and then another. Lucy meanwhile gets more and more perturbed. "Play 'Jingle Bells!'" she orders.

Finally, Schroeder hunches over the keyboard and pecks out the melody with two fingers...plink, plink, plink. Lucy's face melts into a dreamy smile. "That's it--that's 'Jingle Bells.'"

Sometimes, it occurs to me, it doesn't matter that our writing is graceful, punchy, or gripping. If it doesn't meet whatever that editor's, agent's, or reader's expectations are, we're not going to get a contract--or even keep them with us past the first paragraph. It doesn't mean our writing is no good--it's just that sometimes, they just want "Jingle Bells."

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