Wilbers: Good writers protect team members from harsh critics

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2011 - 3:44 PM

I heard an interesting story the other day. It was both strange and oddly familiar.

A writer named George had devoted his entire career to helping his fellow writers survive the wrath of their unforgiving -- and unscrupulous -- boss. No matter how hard they tried to please this tyrant by never missing deadlines, by avoiding common errors such as principle goal for principal goal or by avoiding proofreading errors such as poop-up ads for pop-up ads, nothing seemed to satisfy him.

Then one snowy December day his team completed work on a complex writing assignment, one that had required analyzing the audience to determine if they would be sympathetic to their message (thereby warranting a direct approach, or conclusion first, evidence second) or hostile (thereby warranting an indirect approach, or evidence first, conclusion second). They had planned their project carefully. They had organized the major components of their document into an outline, formulated a short list of editing guidelines such as whether to use the serial comma and whether to present numbers as figures or words and appointed an overall editor who would review the various drafts for stylistic consistency.

With feelings of joy mixed with dread, they submitted their final copy to George, who compiled their parts into a whole and proofread it four times, first looking for big errors such as missing pages, and last looking for little errors such as placing periods after rather than before closing quotation marks, "like this". George printed a final copy, proofread it one last time, and asked Billy to deliver the document to their boss, Mr. Potter.

As Billy was walking down the corridor, he decided to check his messages on his handheld device. Unfortunately, he became so absorbed and distracted that he left the report on the counter of the recycling room rather than giving it to their boss.

When Potter saw the report, he dropped it into the recycling bin and sent a nasty e-mail berating everyone for missing the deadline and threatening to fire George.

Devastated, George decided to tender his resignation to protect his team members. In shame and humiliation, he began closing his e-mail accounts when he noticed a Facebook friend request from someone named Clarence. Thinking he had nothing to lose, he accepted.

"Before you do anything rash," George posted, "imagine a life without Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." Imagine a world in which thoughtless and mean-spirited communication overcomes goodness and caring, a world in which older writers with their vast experience no longer mentor younger writers with their oversized thumbs and short attention spans. Without people like you, that's the kind of world we would have."

Realizing that he had led a wonderful life, that he had in fact made a difference, George opened a file, printed a new copy of the misplaced document, dropped it into Potter's inbox and went home to his adoring wife and children.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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