For writers, sugar coating can be deadly
Note: Sharpen your pens, editors — this piece is about writing. Please rip it to shreds.
LinkedIn recently erupted when trial lawyer and commercial litigator Jonathan Pollard (not the notorious spy) posted a piece headlined, “Millennial Savages Me on Glass Door for Giving Her … Constructive Feedback.”
The story: A job applicant had boasted about her writing and included samples. Pollard found her writing subpar. Rather than tossing her application, he took pains to offer detailed edits and unvarnished comments to her writing submission. He called one long, winding, confusing and jargon-replete sentence a “monstrosity.” (It was.)
Pollard’s coup de grâce: “My English and history professors at Cornell would have ripped this to shreds (as I just did).”
The applicant didn’t thank Pollard for the opportunity and feedback. Overlooking that he was the firm’s founder and principal, she posted, “Jonathan Pollard is one of the rudest and unprofessional hiring managers I have ever encountered in my job seeking experience.” Fortunately, Pollard had the grace not to identify her. She has enough trouble.
Pollard’s piece is worth the time:
The piece was published on April 7. By May 13, it had some 10,000 likes and 1,500 comments. Many applauded Pollard and piled on over-coddled, over-confident, fragile Millennials. Millennials and defenders thought Pollard could/should have delivered his feedback more sensitively and constructively, first praising what was good, and then outlining what could be better: Lots of carrot before some gentle stick.
I’m torn. In my 30+ years as a bill-paying writer — journalist, advocacy scribe, press secretary, speechwriter, communications hack — I’ve been privileged to lead, work with, and work for many writers. Some far more talented than I’ll ever be (damn it); others just starting out, taking off, or in the wrong job.
In any case, my feedback is usually: Know what you want to say and why. Say it directly. Edit yourself harshly — be your worst critic. Edit more. Keep the wheat. Lose the chaff. Shave every day with Occum’s Razor because simplest and briefest is best.
The edits, comments or rewrites I offer are never personal. It’s about the writing, what it’s trying to achieve, and getting there. Just as — however insulting or painful it was — I didn’t take the edits, comments and rewrites of my stuff personally, but as invaluable lessons. It’s not about me. It’s about the writing and the reader.
I’ve been ripped to shreds more times that I can remember. Some I’ll never forget:
At the University of Connecticut, the late, legendary English professor J.D. O’Hara — who pioneering novelist Anne Beatty (Chilly Scenes of Winter) credits as mentor — sent a letter to me as editor in chief of college paper. I had published a snarky editorial in response to O’Hara’s latest in periodic rants that students were “geeks, creeps and brain-dead sheep,” and quoted Molière. I had just read The Misanthrope for class, so ridiculously thought myself literate enough to challenge the Literary Lion of UConn. O’Hara took me down where I belonged. His best line: “You misused your colon. No, not the one from which your editorial was shat.”
Also at UConn, I took a seminar called “The Example of Pound” to study the legendary poet’s poet, Ezra Pound, and his Cantos, one of the most impenetrable but brilliant texts of the 20th century. The professor was Marcella Booth, who had been personally close to Pound in his later years, and inherited his journals, manuscript drafts, poem fragments and notes, correspondence and other papers, and donated them to the University of Texas. Booth knew Pound, inside and out. In class, when I spoke up, she would ridicule. At mid-term, she gave me a D-minus. In the end, she gave me an A. Why? Somehow, she pounded me with the best lesson for writers: Humility. The proverbial pride goes before the fall.
Later hired as the chief Pentagon speechwriter even though I’d never written a speech, the communications chief would call me to his office, hold up a speech draft with finger and thumb like it was a dirty diaper, and coldly say, “do it again.” I asked questions. He’d reply, “Just do it again.”
More fond memories:
A top national official circled a paragraph on a speech draft and wrote, “this is dogshit.”
Another wanted an important commencement address to be “short, funny and meaningful.” That was the totality of her direction. I did my best. She sent it back innumerable times simply saying, “Too long. Not funny.” Eventually she was pleased with the speech, and it was good enough that several years later a school board chair plagiarized it wholesale and lost his job.)
A Fortune 50 CEO would X out entire pages with a thick black Sharpie and write, “NO!” Or draw a little skull and crossbones next to offending paragraphs. Or write, “BLAH BLAH BLAH” across sections that in hindsight really were.
Another boss who became a mentor and friend would call about a draft I’d written, and — after pregnant pause — irritably ask, “What were you trying to say?”
In cases involving speechwriting, quite often I’ve had no idea what the official wanted to say. Often he or she didn’t know either. Some officials I’d never spoken to. Some had sudden speaking events where nobody knew anything about what should be said.
Writing speeches, op-eds and other executive communications for CEOs, top government officials, nonprofit leaders and others, I often didn’t get much guidance about what to write. They expect you to offer what they should do, and go from there. That’s ok, and in many ways, makes the job more fun and interesting.
You have to use imagination, intuition and engaged listening, then extrapolate, connect dots, and work with others to figure out what the official should or might want to say. Some officials I barely knew and had never spoken with rejected drafts, wondering why I didn’t know what they thought. One CEO needed a heartfelt personal message to employees about a company crisis. I tried. His response: “Doesn’t sound like me.”
Have I enjoyed the direct, brusque, insensitive, unhelpful feedback? No — I’m human, and not a Shades of Grey devotee who derives pleasure from humiliation. I’ve had some dark nights of the soul. I’ve pushed back on needlessly harsh feedback that wasn’t helpful or if the feedbacker was acting out from frustration over the situation, not the draft.
But in writing, especially in high-stakes, high-stress, crisis situations, time and circumstances don’t always permit the luxury of sugarcoating the medicine or taking harsh feedback personally. I found the sugar a waste of time. Just get to the point; let’s make this right.
Professors O’Hara and Booth, and all the teachers, bosses and leaders I’ve had the privilege to write with that never pulled punches, gave me whatever writing chops and callouses I have to keep doing this.
Judge for yourselves from this piece whether I’ve learned enough: Or whether I’ve misused my colon again.
Inspirational Facebook posts and refrigerator magnet quotes remind that our worst experiences can motivate our best efforts, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, blah blah blah. The most brutal feedback I’ve received was the most memorable and useful. The mollycoddling? Not so much. I recall the wheat, not the chaff.
So I hope Jonathan Pollard’s applicant learns more from the online response to her post than she did from his feedback, takes it as a valuable gift, and uses it wisely. If not, I feel bad for her. Refusing the gift of criticism — even if given without wrapping and bow — is churlish and a needless tragedy. Accepting is a blessing.
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” Faulkner advised. If you over-love what you’ve written, let it go, set it free. Your baby could be a monstrosity that deserves its fate. Like — I’m certain — a lot of what I’ve written here. (He said in all humility.)
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer