school of hard knocks

KBS-school-of-hard-knocks_pasteup-1024x768I cried yesterday. I never cry.

Because of the weird way in which my local paper works (it’s a tiny paper), content I write often appears online before it appears in the printed edition. This can be both good and bad. It is good when I am eager to see what the editor has done with my work—usually he changes very little, of which I am proud. It is bad, however, when I have made a mistake and someone catches it, but, alas, it is too late to make changes before the article goes to print.

That is what happened this weekend.

I wrote twelve articles. With each article, I looked for a way to draw readers in, to make the article interesting, to make people want to keep reading. Most of the articles were straight-forward. A few, however, were complicated. In an article about the county’s “fire safe council,” I confused one of the council’s programs with another group’s and used the word “wilderness” instead of “wildland.” In another, I began with an interesting story behind a local painter, but, in my rush to meet my deadline, said “power” instead of “pressure washing” and spelled “Pittsburgh” without the “h.” The painter was furious on all accounts (apparently he didn’t like that I’d included the background info) and sent me a text-message to let me know how disappointed, nay, disgusted he was with what I’d written.

I wanted to die.

I went for a bike ride to try to shake it off. I knew that there was nothing I could do. The article would go to print, and the world would keep on turning. But at that moment I felt at the bottom of a deep, dark abyss, as though the weight of the world were on my shoulders: I’d tried my best, and my best wasn’t good enough.

. . .

It was good, though, in a way. It’s a lesson I’ll not soon forget. In journalism accuracy is of the utmost importance. Looming deadlines can’t mean sacrificed precision. I’ll never be able to please everyone all of the time (there’s a reason they say writers must develop thick skin), but I can at least make damn sure I spelled “Pittsburgh” right.

Image: Pinterest

71 thoughts

  1. I really feel for you… can only imagine how you felt. But like you say, you’ll learn from it and move on. Not my favourite phrase but: sh*t happens. Rarely is it ever as bad as it feels in the moment. On this occasion you did your best but it didn’t work out – not because you’re not good enough but because it’s a learning process. Everything is. Glad to see that you’re trying not to linger on it…

    • Thanks, Mark. I’ve decided I far prefer writing blog posts, though. Here I can write beautiful things, and if I mess anything up, the only person who’ll be angry with me is myself.

  2. Well, there goes my perception of your infallibility.
    Of course, it’s an editor’s job to catch those little things when we miss them (and we all do); seems his disappointment and disgust would be better served turned inwardly.
    And I’ll keep reading your stuff here despite his underwhelming reception of your other writing.

    • Thanks, Matt. Your encouragement means a lot. I kind of thought the editor was supposed to help me out in that regard, too; alas, he is a busy man. The ultimate responsibility for accuracy lies with me. Thank you for sticking with me!

  3. Oh, wow, Jessica.

    Anyway, I hope you can always find time to reread and edit. Wrong stuff, for some reason, always seems to stand out. It’s usually easy to catch because our eyes are not used to wrong spelling, for instance. Better luck next time. Cheers!

    • Lol, that’s good to know! I’m not from that part of the country, and, though usually a good speller, clearly didn’t get that one right! Thanks so much.

    • Lol. Thank you, Hillary. Your comment made me laugh. My friends on wordpress are good for me. Otherwise I’d be fighting this discouragement alone!

  4. I commend you for getting all those articles done in such a short time. There is bound to be some mistakes with that much work to do in that time frame. I know I would not have done it. I would be fired. It’s best just to shrug it off find a way to let out your frustration like going on your bike ride. Kudos to you!!!

    • Thanks, Frank. Yeah, like I said, I know it’s not the end of the world. I can be proud of what I did and apply what I’ve learned to the future. Sometimes life is just that way. And my bike will always be there for me! :)

      Thanks so much!

  5. Pittsburgh is a very hard word to spell. Don’t worry about the mistakes; they happen. Don’t get down on yourself. only Jesus was impeccable. Love your style! Keep writing! Keep injecting pathos into words. Keep bringing your readers along with the dance you choreograph. Those mistakes don’t sound too big. No lives will be lost over those mistakes. Someone was furious? Sounds like someone doesn’t have much to do. What is the difference between wildland and wilderness?

    • Apparently “wildland-public interface” is the term used by organizations such as CalFire. “Wilderness-public interface” doesn’t cut it. Had I had more time, I’m still not sure if I would have gotten it correct, though. Like I said, live and learn.

      Thanks for your encouragement. I know no lives will be lost. I’m hoping a lot of good will come to these organizations from these articles despite my mistakes. As I’ve said, they were well written. The public won’t know the difference.

      There’s a reason I avoid talking about politics on my blog, though. ;)

  6. I believe in USA Pittsburgh is pronounced ‘Pitz-burg’. So technically it should not have an ‘h’ on the end, as ‘h’ after ‘g’ renders them both silent, when there are preceding syllables, as in ‘borough’, thorough etc. So leaving the ‘h’ off is at least phonetically correct :). Come over the pond and write for the Happisborough (pronounced Hayz-bruh!) Times :) and don’t be too ruff on yourself ;)

    • Haha! Well, apparently there are other Pittsburgs in the States that spell it the way I did. So, even though I’d already mentioned Evans City, PA, and it should have been obvious that this was Pittsburgh, PA and not another Pittsburg, I can see why he was upset. It’s just hard when people look for faults instead of noticing the things you did right.

  7. I feel for ya Jessica! Don’t worry about the “h” in Pittsburgh. I lived in Cincinnati for a few years and the first year of living there I would always spell it wrong. Now I just say Cincy.. lol Keep your head up… You’re too good of a writer to let it get you down.

    • I would probably have had to check the spelling of Cincinnati if I’d had to write it without your comment! There are a few words/names out there that are tricky…

      Thanks so much, Kurt. That means a lot. I won’t let it keep me down. Just need a few days to lick my wounds, lol.

  8. That’s a hard lesson, Jess. My sympathy goes to you. Keep strong. The pressure you had within such limited timeframe should have been taken into account before such rash judgment was made. All writers need editors, that’s true. But it provides no justification whatsoever to display ‘disgust’ to a workmate through a text message. Is that legally acceptable by the way?

    On the other hand, everyone is allowed to make mistakes. No one learns without making mistakes. Mistakes, my friend, are expected. I read two books by two great authors; the books are published by Penguin, both are classics. I found three spelling mistakes in one book and four in the other, all in different pages. I was thinking: how come these great authors made such mistakes? But more interestingly: how come they went unnoticed and the books were circulated worldwide? What did the editors of this large publishing house do? But my questions stopped there. I couldn’t be bothered. I was more drawn by the story than by the simple errors. As a reader, what was I supposed to do anyway? Sue Penguin for wasting my money? Or blackmail the editors? Does such things prevent me from buying books by Penguin? No. I keep buying their books; my shelves are full of theirs. I know how hard it is to write, even much harder to edit, so mistakes are inevitable. Even if they spot your spelling errors, it just needs common sense for your readers not to be disappointed if they really enjoy your articles. To enjoy the writing, that’s the most important thing, right? And finally, there’s a good chance some of the readers may not even know how to spell ‘Pittsburgh’, so they won’t notice the error. As my Australian colleagues would say, ‘Don’t worry, mate, you’ll be right!’

    • Thank you so much, Subhan. That’s what I’ve been hoping, honestly. Most of these people have never had an article about them in the paper before—so it’s a big deal to them (even if no one else knows how to spell Pittsburgh, which, by the way, you’re probably right)—and they’ve certainly never written an article for the paper themselves. Because of this, they have no pity and no idea what the writer went through to create the article in the first place. My prayer is that, despite the “faults” they see, a lot of good will come to them because of what I have written. As I have said, those articles were really well done, even if they weren’t perfect.

      I’ve seen errors in books before, too. No editor is perfect. The different spelling in different parts of the world make things interesting, too. I would make a terrible British writer!

      Thanks for your support. :)

  9. I’m working on a guest post about education for another blogger and I feel the pressure. I can’t imagine the work load you took on. Was it a paying job? If not, hopefully, he is at least grateful for the work you put in.

    • Thank goodness it *was* a paid job. But, although the money was nice, and I wouldn’t have done it without it (it was a lot of work!), it really wasn’t much and I wasn’t doing it *for* the money.

      I don’t know if he was grateful. He seemed to think that he could have written a better article himself… Alas, I’m not saying that I am not at fault. But his tone sure tore me up when, in fact, I *did* do a good job.

      Good luck on your guest post! Be sure to link to it—I want to read it! You’re a great writer. I’m not worried. ;)

  10. WTH!!! I don’t care if you said Pittsbird the guy was being a total jerk. I know, I know it’s his job to be an editor, to be precise, to make you be exact. But, has he never made a small error here and there? I’m responding like a mother and since I watched you grow up and you are my son’t age I don’t want anyone making you feel this bad. You’re being way to harsh with yourself. Be kinder to yourself.

    • Thank you, Terri. Honestly, the editor at the Mtn. Democrat is kind of stand-offish. He honestly made one of my articles worse by cutting out a much-needed paragraph to make the story fit. But whatever… I think a lot of the people I wrote the articles for don’t actually read the paper that much. If they did, they’d know I did a good job.

      Anyway, it’s over now. I won’t be writing any articles like that again for a while. I’m working on another one now, but it’s of a completely different genre—thank God!

  11. Nobody’s perfect. It feels crappy when we make mistakes, but in the end it always pays to put yourself out there. Simply do your best, and keep moving! :)

  12. Stuff happens, Jessica. Especially when you write 12 articles in a weekend. That’s what editors are for. I know writers who screw up EVERY day, probably because they don’t give a damn. Talk about typos! If your content was interesting, a few mistakes will be overlooked by pretty much everybody. And like pretzellogic says, “…it happens to the best of us.” You will have learned a lesson and your writing will be better for it. Plus, you got a blog out of it!

    • A blog out of it? That’s one way to look at it, Paul. I hadn’t thought of that! Not a bad perspective.

      Yes, I’ll keep moving. I know it happens to the best of us. (Although I didn’t write twelve articles in one weekend—only six! Twelve would have *really* been a nightmare!) I won’t let it get me down. Just needed a day or two to recover. ;)

  13. Sounds to me like you did really well under the pressure of tough deadlines. Whenever I read an article, written by a journalist, about any subject on which I have detailed knowledge, I find it riddled with errors of fact and misinterpretation. Your errors were tiny in comparison.

    • Thanks, Pat. It definitely *is* hard to write an in-depth article about a complicated topic that you yourself are not an expert on. Journalists would have to wear a lot of hats if they were expected to be an expert about every topic they ever wrote about—which they basically are. It really is a tough field.

  14. Ironically, I quite like the fact that the editor seemed to care about quality. Usually when I read stories I find that they are full of punctuation and factual errors. That said, the editor or someone else should have read them first to find those typos so it is their fault as much as yours; should be a team environment.

    • I’m a little confused by your comment. Of course I care about quality. I am equally upset with myself for the mistakes I made as I am that people are upset with me. It KILLS me to know I did wrong. But, by the time I realized my errors, it was too late.

      I’m not sure why the editor of this paper is so stand-offish. He really hasn’t been very helpful any of the times I’ve worked with him.

      Alas, it is no matter. What’s done is done. I can’t beat myself up over it anymore.

      • Sorry. I wasn’t having a go at you. The fact that it bothers you indicates you care about quality as well. I just mean that in general I get the impression many in the media don’t care so i am happy that there is a desire for crossing those ts and dotting the is.

        Of course I disagree with the way he went about it. We all make typos and sentences that are sometimes confusing or suffer incorrect spell checks. That is why it is great to be I’m a team environment where people can help each other out. This editor sounds like he has made a far bigger mistake in the way he is dealing with people.

        Again, no offense intended and don’t beat yourself up. In my opinion, the mistake should be attributed to the proof reader or editor. It’s there job to find them.

      • Oh, no offense taken! I was just confused… And I guess I wasn’t clear with what I wrote. It wasn’t actually the editor who sent me that text message. It was the painter about whom the article was about. *He* was the one who was upset. The editor saw the work before it went to print, so he would have no right to be upset with me—at least not like that!

        Ultimately I know it is the reporter’s responsibility to get the facts right, and I agree that it’s important to dot those “i’s” and cross those “t’s”! I will definitely use this experience as a learning curve. For now, I just have to keep trudging…

        Thanks for your interest and support. It means a lot to me!

  15. I feel that it was rather unprofessional of your editor to let you know how unhappy he was with the errors via text message. The world of journalism is indeed cut-throat – I used to intern at a newsroom and my supervisor would literally go mental when I made a spelling mistake or left out a word in my articles.

    Well done on getting so many articles done on time. I’m sure there was a lot of research and interviewing involved (not to mention thinking and structuring the articles), and I’m sure you’ve come out stronger :)

    • Thanks, Mabel. You’re very kind. And it *is* a cut-throat world. Not sure I was meant to be a journalist.

      I didn’t mean to say that my editor told me that via text, though. It was the guy that the story was about. *He* was the one who was upset.

      At this point, though, there’s nothing I can do. I told him I was sorry. And, yes, I’ve come out stronger. This experience will help me in the end.

  16. Its harsh. Specially for a perfectionist like you. You edit and re-edit. You spend hours writing an article. It really hits you hard when someone says he was disgusted with what you’d written. He should have been a little gentle in communicating and pointing out grammatical and spelling errors.

    The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows…

    But, I am happy that you’ve taken it in the right spirit and have come out stronger. :)

    • Thanks, Allwin. You’re very right. It’s hard for a perfectionist like me! Life would be much easier if I just didn’t care sometimes, you know? ;)

      Thanks for your encouragement. I’m bouncing back from my disappointment just fine. And I have learned my lesson! (Several lessons, actually.)

  17. Twelve articles Jessica!? Geeeezzzz, I hope they weren’t required to be 1,000 – 3,000 words. That’s really tough; near impossible with a very short deadline! And out of 12 articles you made two mistakes? In the real world, that’s pretty damn good! Why didn’t your editor catch those mistakes???

    Perhaps there is someone who can grammar-check, spell-check, etc, your articles before sending them to the editor? I don’t know. Trying to help. I’m a total novice about these things.

    • No, thank goodness. The articles weren’t 1,000 words. They were all between 600 and 800, and the editor cut some of them (and made them worse, in my opinion) to make them fit their allotted space in the paper.

      No, I didn’t only make two mistakes. All in all, I got three negative responses from vendors, and, yes, that was out of 12. For each of these negative responses, there were between one to three small errors, or, as with the case with the painter, the whole article was, in his opinion, a sham.

      The editor at this local paper seems to trust his writers a lot. He’s not necessarily fact-checking; he’s just making sure things flow (sort of), checking grammar and punctuation, and then fitting them in the paper. Because there *is* a Pittsburg, CA (and in other states, too) he may have thought that was the Pittsburg I was referring to. I honestly have no idea.

      In any event, the whole thing is behind me now, and I’m glad.

  18. hey Jessica. i am guessing you came from a small family? people from larger families usually have more experience being beaten up for nothing ;-) calling the beater an idiot then forgetting about it. I’ll lend you one of my younger brothers to practise (calling him an idiot) on.

    • Jessica, don’t take it too hard, I was shocked when I first got screamed at with vulgarities by a client when I was working. I felt it was uncalled for and i was merely a messenger of his tenant. but life goes on… i am still sensitive when being criticized but in the end i ask myself if i have done my job well and if the answer is yes, i stop losing sleep over it :D

      • That is very good advice, Sam. I think this experience has been really good for me overall—in multiple ways. I learned a lot. ;) Sorry to hear about your experience with that client! Glad you’ve learned to shake it off, too.

    • Lol. You’re right. I *did* come from a small family. Just me and my younger brother. We certainly did our share of fighting, but not too many all-out brawls, and, although I’m sure we fit in some name-calling, we made sure not to do it around Mom and Dad. :P

      I’ve always tried to refrain from name-calling as I want to be understanding of others (they *must* have a reason for the way they’re acting, right?), but, sometimes, a good “Idiot!” is called for!

  19. I think your last paragraph nails it. Don’t stress yourself out too much and don’t be too hard on yourself. I think what’s important is that you learned something important from this experience, that even if you have 12 articles to write (I still don’t know how you did that) you’ll probably pay that last bit of attention to get those details right. Move on and apply these lessons in the future and you’re good to go. -AB

    • Well… I learned a lot, and some of it has to do not only with what *I* can do better, but also with what to expect from other people. In the long run, my errors were minor; in the bigger picture, the articles were well-written and drew interest from readers, which is what these vendors should have been hoping for. I can expect that people will criticize; I can expect that I won’t please everyone. I did the best I could under the circumstances, and I will forevermore. I can’t ask myself for anything more.

  20. The painter may have over reacted by his “disgust,” he probably had a bad day and took it out on you, so just forgive him and move on. I mean really, power & pressure washing are synonymous. You could’ve caught “Pittsburg” with spellcheck, lol. Hey, we’re only human – and thus divine! :D

    • Thanks for your encouragement. At this point it’s in the past, and, whether he overreacted or not, there isn’t much I can do about it, anyway. And, actually, as I mentioned in another comment somewhere, there *are* other Pittsburgs in the States that are spelled that way, so spell check on my computer did me no good! Thanks so much for your comment.

  21. 12 articles is insane!! I’m surprised you’re still breathing. Can you forward the articles you write to the main subjects you interviewed prior to sending them to the editor or does that violate journalistic ethics? I’ve been written up in the local paper before and very much appreciated the advance copy that allowed me to correct some of the stupid mistakes in the articles that just came from fast writing. Of course I understood that my comments were advisory and strictly intended to catch such errors rather than collaborative in nature and that the journalist was at liberty not to take my suggestions. The less time you give subjects in that situation the better, because then they only have time to make technical suggestions instead of in-depth analysis of your hastily written piece, hehehe

    • In this situation there wasn’t time to send the articles to the interviewees for approval. (I was also told not to.) I had to write them and turn them over to the editor asap. With most newspaper articles you’re not supposed to show them to people before they go to print as a way to prevent bias in the paper. With more promotional stories like I was writing, I’d think it’d usually be more acceptable, though.

      Anyway, it’s all behind me now. Thank goodness!

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