by John Walters
A long time ago, a decade or so back, I was set up on a blind date (many of my personal anecdotes begin this way). When the lady seated across the table learned that I was a writer, she beamed. “I’m a writer, too!” she said.
“I thought you said you were a dentist,” I countered.
“Oh, I am,” the well-meaning lady said. “But I write free-lance when I can…Don’t worry, I’m no threat to you. I write for free.”
“That’s exactly why I’m worried,” I told her.
She meant well, but as I explained to the dentist, What if a whole bunch of us started practicing dentistry, simply because we enjoyed pulling teeth or doing root canals? Maybe we couldn’t do it as well as you, but we offered our services free of charge. Don’t you think we might cut into your market some? And worse, wouldn’t you be maybe just a tad offended that we presumed we could do your job without having taken all the courses and gone through all the rigors you did to become a dentist?
Granted, you need to be licensed to practice dentistry as opposed to practicing journalism. Still, treating any art or skill where people toil to make a living as only your hobby, and then brushing off a shortcoming as “well, this isn’t what I actually do” is a little bit disrespectful to those who do, no?
Last night I read a story on the Notre Dame fansite OneFootDown.com that caused me to revisit this conversation. A writer whose name I will not mention here wrote an opinion piece that was also an admonishment: “Stop Calling For Brandon Wimbush To Be Benched.”
Now, you’re welcome to your opinion on whether Brandon Wimbush or Ian Book should start at quarterback for the Fighting Irish. After all, only one man’s opinion truly matters. But if you look at the site OneFootDown.com, up in the right-hand corner, there’s a banner for SBNation. This tells you one thing: no matter whether the person who wrote this piece is a professional writer or not, the site exists as a for-profit site. Sure, it wants to inform its readers, but it is also a business. And as soon as you call yourself a business, no matter if you are a restaurant or a publication or an auto-repair shop, your work is subject to critical review. No matter how much or how little you pay your employees.
I did not share the author’s opinion nor did I find his arguments trenchant. Worse, he went with the dreaded unnecessary exclamation point (!) more than once. I don’t recall exactly how many times he did this, but it was at least twice. Sure, I could have been nicer about it, but I simply RT’ed the story link on Twitter from One Foot Down and added this admittedly snarky critique:
Writing tip: If you want to sound less like a commenter and more like a journalist, cut the exclamation marks by 90%. https://t.co/sjGLGEN6bR
— Medium Happy (@jdubs88) September 21, 2018
Can I occasionally (frequently?) come off as an A-hole on Twitter? Probably. Does that matter to me? Not really. I hate to borrow from Clay Travis here, but it’s true: “Facts, not feelings.”
Not long after someone from One Foot Down tweeted back at me that the author of the piece “writes 1 or 2 articles a week. I think he’s okay here — it’s the internet.” But I think he missed my point. The author’s literary integrity isn’t at risk here; the site’s is.
I’ve worked at a few places that make money based on the content of their stories. The brand name of any of those publications where I worked is only as good as the lamest story that appears in that magazine or on that website. It’s the lowest common denominator that matters, not the highest common denominator.
If you want to write because you like to write, go right ahead. If you want to post pieces on a private blog for your friends and family and maybe a few people who will discover them and enjoy reading them as much as you enjoyed writing them, again, go ahead. And I’ll keep my mouth shut.
As soon as you write a piece for a site or magazine that actually employs people to keep that magazine or site running, your submission is fair game for my or anyone else’s critique. What you were paid to write it or if you only submitted it because you’re a die-hard fan or maybe because you’re just a dentist who likes to pen pieces pro bono in your off-hours, I don’t care. That site is a business; and as a consumer, I have every right to inform you that the product is sub-par.
Being that it’s Twitter, I’m now officially mean. And that’s unforgivable. So of course the hoi polloi will rally around the writer, who’s just a fella, I presume, who writes pieces in his free time because he loves Notre Dame football and whose pieces SB Nation happily runs because, hey, FREE CONTENT!
I’ll just leave you with this: When I went back to re-read the story today, someone had edited it. There’s now only one (!) exclamation mark in the piece, where previously there were more. I dunno, this is a bizarre thought, but maybe if someone at SB Nation who actually gets paid to produce pieces had taken the time to read and edit the piece (unofficially, Doing Your Job) before I sent out that tweet, this entire kerfuffle might have been avoided.
Have a nice weekend.