The End of Optimism (and Good Riddance!)

That deadline is fine! My schedule is wide open! The only thing on my calendar is my kidney transplant.

Writers may have a reputation for being cantankerous loners with drinking problems, but that characterization is not true at all. In my experience, most of you out there are cheery, charming optimists!

Did I just describe you? How lovely! Now, knock it off. That optimism of yours will ruin your career.

Alright, I’m exaggerating, but I would recommend that you adjust your optimism in one particular area: Stop Overpromising.

An optimist often thinks he or she can do more than what is realistically possible. As a magazine editor, I see this type of person all the time.

“Do you think you can have a draft to me in two weeks?” I ask.

“Absolutely!” the writer tells me. And she seriously believes it, too.

But in that moment of certainty, Ms. Optimist forgot to consider (or mention) that she has a sick, aging mother who needs tending; two children at home for summer vacation; another writing assignment she hasn’t exactly started yet; and a full time job that requires her to, you know, work full time.

We can all guess how this story ends. Two weeks come and go and my grubby little hands are empty. In fact, Ms. Optimist hasn’t even started the assignment. Now she’s filled with anxiety, guilt, and self-loathing – which is awful. Then she calls me up and grovels for an extension – which I find awful.

She apologizes upwards and downwards and sideways. Then she goes on about her personal problems – the sick mother, the two kids underfoot, and the other freelance job (that she also hasn’t finished) – begging me to take into consideration the very same things she failed to take into consideration when we agreed upon the deadline two weeks ago. It is not her finest moment.

See what optimism will get you?

So! May I humbly suggest a dash of pessimism?

Allow me to explain: I’m reasonably good at managing my time, so when I think a writing job will take me two weeks to complete, it often does. But, hey, it doesn’t always. Things happen. Who knows what’s waiting for me around the next corner? So when I think a job will take me two weeks, I ask the editor for three (or even four if I can get away with it). I might hear a little sigh of disappointment when I ask for the extra time, but I know that disappointment will later be replaced with delight when I submit my story ahead of deadline.

Full disclosure: I have never been hired by a sea turtle – but if I had, he’d be as happy as this.

Better yet, when my story comes in early, it looks as if I made an extra special effort to make the editor’s life easier. My reputation as Mr. Reliable is duly earned and I play well with others!

It’s easy to look good when you keep your promises under control.

Disney theme parks are especially good at practicing the art of underpromising. When you’re on line for a ride, you will see signs letting you know how much longer you’ll need to wait. Disney World’s wonderful little secret, however, is that when you reach the “30-Minute Wait” sign, you’ll never have to wait 30 minutes. You’ll be on Dumbo’s back in fewer than 15 – and you’ll be happy as a clam because the wait wasn’t nearly as long as you had expected. There’s a reason why Disney World is called “The Happiest Place On Earth.”

Not Disney World.

Now, imagine how happy Disney World would be if the sign said “30 Minute Wait” but you had to wait an hour. You would be livid. The editor whose deadline you missed might be similarly so.

Now I’m gonna tell you my little secret: As a magazine editor, missed deadlines don’t trouble me very much. Some people who don’t know me very well think it’s because I’m an easygoing fella, but, trust me, that’s not the reason. I’m untroubled because I’m a pessimist.

In other words, when I asked that cheery, charming, optimistic writer to get me a story in two weeks, I knew I wasn’t going to need if for another four.

Paper Trained

Need a little advice, kids? Well have a seat.

I work at a high school, which means I often interact with high school students. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Most of them know I do this writing thing and can tell that I’m pretty happy, so the aspiring wordsmiths among them often ply me for advice.

“How can I become a writer?” they ask with wide, dewy, earnest eyes.

“Work for a newspaper,” I reply.

Without fail, they then look at me as if to say, “Gee, thanks for the advice, Grandpa, but the world doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Punk kids.

Yeah, Mr. Allegra, you’re still cool!

Sheesh, I’m not stupid. I know where newspapers are going. A couple of years ago I even wrote a feature story titled “Black and White and Dead All Over.” The fate of the daily newspaper is obvious.

I wasn’t telling those kids to work for a daily, though. The weeklies are where the action is. Unlike their big city cousins, weeklies aren’t in financial trouble – and they’re great places to get your boots on the ground, learn the trade, slough off a few failures, and develop a local following. Also, weeklies happily accept journalism newbies. They have no choice, really; their salaries are much too low to attract anyone who has already proven himself.

So, Go Greenhorns!

My old paper, Suburban Trends, was published on Wednesdays and Sundays. Each reporter was assigned a town to cover. Then each reporter was made to understand that he or she was to submit six stories about that town every week. Three stories per issue. “At least three,” Mr. Editor would then tell you with a solemn nod. “Because, you know, four stories are better than three. Better for you, if you get me.”

Oh, I got him.

The job was not as ominous as I make it sound, really. The stories didn’t have to be long or involved, they just had to be in Mr. Editor’s grubby little hands before deadline. This, of course, taught me how to bang out punchy, polished copy on a variety of topics – which is excellent training for anyone who wants to write.

The greatest benefit of this system, however, was that it forced me to be independent and resourceful. You see, Suburban Trends editors didn’t oversee their reporters very much. They gave you a list that told you when the local committees and boards met. Then they showed you the door and told you to come back with three stories. At least three.

You soon learn that only four of these local meetings are worth going to:

1. The Town Council Work Session, where the council talks about what they’re going to talk about at next week’s Town Council Meeting.

2. The Town Council Meeting, where the council talks about about what they said they were going to talk about the week before – only, this time, instead of talking they yell.

3. The Board of Education Meeting, where a small yet vocal minority tries to get a beloved principal fired.

4. The Planning Board Meeting, where people argue about whether or not they should let some guy build yet another ugly strip mall. (Don’t worry ugly strip mall fans; they always get built eventually!)

All of the other township committees and boards exist only as an excuse for middle-aged men to get out of the house, eat butter cookies, and talk about fishing.

Okay, everyone, enough chit chat. Let’s get down to the first item on tonight’s agenda: Jerry’s golf swing.

A good reporter on a good news month might be able to get three stories from the Town Council Work Session, four from the Town Council Regular Meeting, two from the Board of Education, and two from the Planning Board. That adds up to 11 stories per month.

Only 13 to go!

So government news wasn’t going to get me anywhere near my quota. Once I wrapped my brain around this (I believe the epiphany came during my attempt to turn a new pooper scooper law into a three-part exposé), I got out from behind my desk and trolled the streets.

It’s so easy for a writer to forget how important it is to walk away from the desk. Granted, meeting a person face to face takes more time and work than a phone call or an email, but you can get so much more out of it. People tell you things over coffee or a beer that they would never ever tell you under any other circumstances.

I made a point to get to know everybody. And while it might sound cliché, everybody does have at least one good story to tell. Before long there wasn’t a conversation that took place over a back fence in that town that I hadn’t heard about. People I would’ve never noticed (or would’ve actively avoided) under normal circumstances became valuable sources. A lot of them became wonderful pals. And many of my experiences with these unique, eccentric, delightful, and slightly-dangerous-looking people inspire my fiction writing to this day.

A possible source. A scary one.

I had no problem finding story ideas after developing these relationships. Even during the summer, when the Board of Education didn’t meet and the Town Council members were too hot and sleepy to muster up the energy to yell, I never missed my twice-weekly quota.

In fact, I often submitted four stories per issue. And y’know what? Four really is better than three. Because when you have four stories you can tell Mr. Editor to get out of your face and go bother someone else.

The Adverbinator

This image courtesy of the fine fellow at merit badger.

During my tenure as a newspaper reporter I worked under three editors.

My third and last editor, Jerry, was an all-around great guy.

I was so devoted to my second editor, an old-timer named Jack, that I would’ve followed him almost to the gates of hell. (I would’ve driven him maybe seven eighths of the way there. That’s pretty much where my devotion to any boss ends, I think.) My point is Jack was the best boss I ever had.

My very first editor, on the other hand, was someone I wanted to shove into oncoming traffic.

Let’s say his name was Dan. He had many failings, but the worst, in my view, was his tone of voice. That voice, accompanied by a cocked eyebrow, made me feel as dumb as dirt. To be fair, I was dumb. I was a journalism greenhorn. But I already knew this without all of Dan’s nasty little reminders. What I needed from my editor was advice and guidance. That was not Dan’s strong suit.

My editor was a lot like this guy – only not as nice.

What really got my dander up, however, was the way Dan hacked away at my prose. One piece I wrote, about a nasty and tempestuous council meeting, was edited to make the proceedings look like an English garden party.

I stormed up to Dan’s desk. “What did you do to this?”

“I got rid of all your editorializing,” he said in that tone of his. “And you’re welcome.”

Ooh, I so wanted to knock those cocked eyebrows off his smug little face. “Editorializing? Where? Where was I editorializing?”

“The adverbs,” he replied. His tone suggested that I was more than welcome to add “stupid” to the end of his quote.

Then he waved me away. Dan had more important things to do now.

I sat at my desk and seethed. What a jerk. I wasn’t editorializing, I was reporting. I am a reporter, right? I was doing my job. That councilman said what he said and he said it “angrily.” I was there. I saw it. The guy was speaking through gritted teeth. His face was beet red. His hands were balled up into little fists. That’s “angrily!” What else could it be?

Then I had an epiphany.

Why, I wondered, didn’t I mention the gritted teeth and the red face and the balled fists in my story? That would’ve communicated angry much better than my “angrily.” And those little physical details really do paint a nice picture, don’t they? They sort of put you there in the room. You can almost see Mr. Councilman frothing at the mouth. My ambiguous, solitary “angrily” didn’t do that at all.

That “angrily” now felt like a pretty lazy way to get my point across.

A typical suburban New Jersey council meeting.

Then I arrived at another sudden realization, and it was a painful one: Dan was right. Adverbs are editorializing. When I wrote “angrily” I was asking the reader to trust my own interpretation of events without providing any evidence to back it up. I wrote that the guy was angry, but I never proved it.

Ugh. Dan, in his jerky, nasty way, mentored me.

My articles became a lot punchier after that. Dan edited less and I began to enjoy my job more. A few short weeks after beginning my self-imposed adverb purge, Dan accepted another job at another newspaper and I never saw him again.

I never did tell Dan how influential he was – but I don’t think I ever could. If I ever saw him again, I think my old urge to smack him upside the head would overcome me. And, just to upset Dan further, I would make sure to smack him happily.