Truth be told, there are nearly as many people eager to help professional writers as to learn from them. Sometimes, this excited volunteerism is spurred by a desire to “see what’s coming next”. Other times, it comes from those who feel that they genuinely have something to contribute. Of the latter, there are two subtypes: those who do and those who don’t. Over the course of my writing career, I’ve met plenty of both.
The most difficult encounters are with those who have overestimated their literary skill. These are people who fancy that they have a broad enough knowledge of a field to render useful advice concerning the writer’s intended audience or a possess deep understanding of grammar… but don’t. They volunteer their help freely and, if a writer (professional or otherwise) should accidentally fall into their hands, they are likely to rewrite their work in its entirety. Having dealt with such “editors” in the past, I tend to be very cautious about allowing others to see my work before it enters the hands of one of the professional editors with whom I work.
It is for this reason that, when one of my professors required that each student visit the tutoring center for assistance with their research papers, a knot began to form in my stomach. This was, after all, a community college. I couldn’t be quite certain that the people “tutoring” others in writing weren’t going to waste my time by turning my “masterpiece” into a worthless reflection of their own literary tastes. (I confess that pompousness has never been far beyond my grasp and requiring me to receive tutoring on something I did professionally was merely adding insult to injury.) Since my grade depended on it, however, I begrudgingly made the appointment.
The day arrived and I marched across campus, my teeth gritted as I anticipated the worst. I had already determined that the best approach would be to “grin and bear it”. I would allow the tutor to make whatever “corrections” she desired. Then I would carefully weigh each one and keep those which I liked. (No sense in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.)
I entered the center with my fifty pounds of school books on my back and introduced myself to the woman at the desk. She would, it turned out, be the one helping me on this dreary afternoon.
Sitting down at a table, we took a moment to discuss the paper. Then, she set to work. To my surprise, she was not at all interested in rewriting my paper. Unlike me, she hadn’t approached the situation with any preconceptions about who I was or what my skill level might be. Instead, she let my writing speak for itself.
It wasn’t long before I was actually having fun. This “tutor” was far more like the professional editors I’d worked with than I’d anticipated. Her corrections made sense and, instead of destroying my work, actually improved it! By the time our session ended, we were even completing each other’s thoughts. (Something that we both agreed was a bit creepy.) I left with a certainty that required or not, I would be using her expert eye again on future papers.
The real lesson learned, of course, has nothing to do with writing or grammar at all. Instead, it’s about our preconceptions and their failure to reflect reality. It’s about approaching others with an attitude of humility and a willingness to learn – even when we don’t know what they have to teach us. I think I’ll be putting my “pompous” hat away for a while (at least for a few days) and trying to focus more on what I have to learn about what I already “know”. A little humility never hurt anyone.