When I first started my newspaper, we pretty much took whoever we could get as writers. The pay was low, and we offered very little that benefitted our staff. Maybe the only thing we offered was a chance to learn.
One staff member was especially bad at writing. She was good at collecting information, mediocre at interviewing, but writing was her downfall. She normally spelled words correctly, but her punctuation was all over the place. And quite frequently, she would use where when she meant were, and there when she meant their. The worst part of this is that, no matter how many times we sat down with her to teach her, such lessons never seemed to stick, and next week’s offering was yet another headache to edit.
She became my friend in spite of her terrible writing, and even after I closed the paper, she and I stayed in touch. So when she told me she was going back to college to get her journalism degree, I inwardly shook my head. And when she finished that and was applying for jobs as a bona fide journalist, I silently screamed “You are NOT a writer!”
This was my perspective until I had an experience in a class I was taking at my college. It was a lit class; I don’t remember the exact name. But our assignments consisted of reading the short story (or stories) given for that week and filling out a paper concerning it. The paper asked who the protagonist and antagonist were, what the theme was, and more along those same lines.
As I was answering the questions, I made reference to the fact that I am a writer. When I got the paper back, graded, the feedback from the teacher said, “If you were really a writer, you would know who the protagonist in this story is.”
I won’t lie. I was pretty hurt. Was she right? Did being a writer mean knowing these elements and being able to point them out in the work of others? Just because I had been writing for as long as I could remember, did that make me a writer? Just because my head was filled with characters and stories, did that mean I was a writer?
This is the conclusion that I came to: People composed stories for a long time before someone came along to slap labels on different aspects of writing. I’m pretty sure Homer didn’t sit at a desk to think of who the protagonist in his story would be, but no one would deny — he IS a writer.
So what is a writer? Does it matter if your punctuation is all wrong? Does it matter if your sentence structure makes no sense? Yes, in a way. People are less likely to hire writers whose grammar skills are lacking (just read the stories on yahoo.com for proof). But it doesn’t mean that person isn’t a writer. Any person with a story to tell with the courage to write down words on a page is a writer. It really is that simple.
And my friend, with all of her glorious grammar errors, is a journalist.