3 Lessons Learned From Assignments I Hated

For some writers, we’re able to make some type of writing our day job. So long as this much writing doesn’t “kill your creativity,” as Kerri Majors says in This is Not A Writing Manual, it can be great. But no matter how great it is, you’ll probably get stuck with an assignment that makes you want to claw your eyes out. After years as a writing student, a blogger, a journalist, a public relations writer, and now a tourism marketing writer, I’ve begrudgingly had to acknowledge how some of these assignments I hated came in handy.

1. IMITATIONS OF STYLE

Lesson taught: senior year of high school, various fiction and creative nonfiction classes in college

“Imitations of Style” was a pain for everyone. You take the piece of writing you want to imitate, and you type out the whole thing verbatim. Many of my classmates copied and pasted from the internet to save themselves from a little tedium. After the whole thing is copied, you write your own imitation piece. Depending on the class, you either wrote an original piece in the other author’s style, or you rewrote the author’s piece in an alternative style.

From E.B. White’s Once More To The Lake, I wrote a memoir piece titled “Lost and Unlost.” From Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I wrote the short story “A Rose of Success.” There are half a dozen more imitations on my computer. One of those pieces reached publication, but otherwise there were no benefits.

Lesson learned: working in public relations

In PR, my duties varied widely. When writing press releases, everything had to be in the company’s branded voice. For certain individuals, I had to draft their quotes for press releases, blog posts, and responses to emails. Every blog post had to have the brand’s voice, but different from the press releases.

There was no manual on how to do any of that, let alone what distinguishes each voice. I had an assignment and an immediate deadline. So I did the first thing that popped in my head: pull up old press releases/articles where person X is quoted/blog posts, and retype them. Doing this gave me a feel for the voices I needed to write in—cadence, sentence structure and length, type of vocabulary, and what sort of information they wanted to highlight. Once I picked it up and practiced, it got difficult to pick out which parts I wrote from the rest.

Always smiling, no matter what. Image via IMDB.

2. FRAME EVERYTHING TO SOUND POSITIVE

Lesson taught: working in public relations

This was always a pet peeve of mine. I would receive edits on blog posts that said to make everything sound more positive. Make it more peppy and upbeat. A coworker used to do this by adding puns and snappy final lines while I continued banging my head against a wall. Everything had to sound like the best thing since macaroni married cheese.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

While writing a brief guide to beaches in the area, I had to include some of the most important rules visitors should know. Some beaches allow dogs or alcohol while others don’t. Several prohibit glass containers of any kind, and violators face huge fines. But one beach has more rules than the others. My first few drafts sounded like, “This beach does not allow fun of any sort between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., but it’s here if you’re into that sort of thing.”

It took some finesse, but I described the beach as the ideal location for people who just want to swim or relax in the sun without having to worry about getting hit by a frisbee. Thankfully, I managed to do so without a single pun.

3. TRANSCRIBE THE WHOLE INTERVIEW

Lesson taught: high school and college journalism

At my college journalism job, a writer desperately needed help editing her article. I asked for her interview notes and transcription and was shocked to see that she hadn’t taken any notes during the interview. Worse, though, was her transcription. Instead of typing out what her source had said, she made bullet points and summarized what she felt had been important. The worst was that she had made up the majority of quotes she’d used in her article.

With our deadline upon us—hers to finish writing the article, and mine to edit and post it online—there wasn’t much I could do besides take over. I put on her headphones and transcribed every word her source said. After pulling all the information the article needed and the best quotes, it took 20 minutes to complete the article. It has always been my method to write articles this way, but I do so because it works for me.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

During my time in PR, sometimes there wasn’t time to record and transcribe a whole interview or presentation. I relied only on my notes. During an interview for one of my first articles, I got my source comfortable by asking him about the history of the building he owned. The first 45 minutes of our recorded interview was full of the building’s history, some personal anecdotes, and several first- and second-hand accounts of ghost sightings. This is Savannah, after all.

That put all the facts I needed for my article in the last 15 minutes of our conversation. It took me about four hours to transcribe the interview. Maybe I could have saved time by skipping past the ghost parts. Part of me wondered if there might be some place for those stories in my article. In the end, I transcribed them because I thought they were amazing. When I related some of the ghost stories to a coworker, she was ecstatic. Local ghost stories are perfect for our publications.

Finding a lesson in the #AskELJames fallout

It’s pretty easy to get caught up in your first reaction to the trending headlines, be it sadness, outrage, hysterical laughter or nothing at all. I saw an ad for the E.L. James Twitter event on Sunday and wondered if I had any questions for the 50 Shades author. Nope. I’m sure I could have taken any of my snarky comments from my live readings of Fifty Shades of Grey or Fifty Shades Darker and submitted those, but personally antagonizing a stranger for writing something I didn’t enjoy has never been one of my hobbies. I try to keep my criticisms focused mainly on the work, but I can be a dopey human like all the rest of the world.

The internet doesn’t have a conscience, however, so James’ Q&A went as the rest of the online community pretty much expected. BuzzFeed, the Chive and Time are just a few of the sites posting galleries of these scathing questions, but a quick Google search will bring you many more.

Was I tempted to peruse the #AskELJames tag and put together my own list of top snarky questions? Yep. Thankfully, one of my guiding stars in the writing world wrote something about this Twitter escapade that we can all learn from. I highly recommend reading Tee Morris’ 5 Lessons Learned after the after the #AskELJames Twitter Event. For those of us learning how to use social media as a marketing platform (myself included), his advice is invaluable.

My favorite of Morris’ lessons: “Always have a reason to promote.” At first, I thought the reason would be obvious. But reading a little bit further, he mentions that Grey, the story from Christian’s perspective, holds the Number One spot for all its categories and Amazon’s book sales. His next question, Where do you go after you hit Number One?, is worth pondering.

Would this Twitter event have gone better if hosted a few months later, maybe after Grey got bumped down a few spots? Maybe — if the questions were moderated. But I’m not sure an event like this would ever work in James’ favor. There seem to be too many people who would jump at any opportunity to publicly hate on the 50 Shades author.