Last night I watched the 1990s movie version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. At the end John Proctor (played movingly by Daniel Day-Lewis) reluctantly signs his name to a confession of witchcraft that will allow him and his wife to go free. However, he recants when the judges insist on posting the confession on the church door for everyone to see. Why, he is asked. "Because it is my name. It is the only one I will have in this life."
It struck me how, though less dramatically, this applies to writers. We have a name, and even if we choose to use another one for our writing, it still represents us and, therefore, everything that goes out under that name should be our best effort.
I mentioned in passing that I've begun to edit for a content site. Yes, the same kind of site I panned in some recent posts. I wasn't going to say much about it here, mainly because I didn't think many of my readers would be interested. However, in the past week I edited a couple of submissions with familiar names and bios at the bottom, and one was by an award-winning novelist who spoke at a conference I recently attended.
I imagine these people are writing for these sites for the same reason I edit for them. Not only does creative writing not pay much anymore, with contest submission fees––and now fees for standard submissions––attending conferences for networking, paying someone to design a website, and even published novelists often spending more on self-promotion than they make in royalties, most creative writers end up in the red, without counting those who paid for an MFA degree. Unless you are a pensioner (in which case you are usually too old to be taken seriously) or can depend on a partner's income, you may decide to lower your standards a bit in order to make some cash. But lower standards for where you will submit, shouldn't mean lower standards for what you submit.
I will tell you that from among 300 how-to and list articles I've edited in the past 3 weeks, the one by the novelist was one of only three I accepted on the first draft. The rest have gone back for rewrites even though it takes twice as much work for the same money and twice as long for me to get paid. Why? Because while I am not allowed to give my name, it is still my name I'm editing under, and I know it. I imagine the same applied to the piece the novelist submitted. Unfortunately, not all professional writers seem to feel the same.
As with any other editing job, the majority of submissions come from people who think they can write, but can't. When those writers think they can write knowledgeably about something they've never done, just by perusing a website or two, you can see why so much gets turned back. However, going by the bios (which, by the way, are not required, so I'm not telling tales about the novelist), some of these people are experienced writers who somehow feel what they are doing does not require their best efforts. One almost senses these writers throwing down their credentials like a gauntlet, challenging editors to question their skills and expertise.
Regularly, they ignore guidelines, like starting steps with an "action verb" or using AP style for punctuation. They use fancy language as filler to cover a lack of knowledge or skip steps in a fairly easy task like making home-made party invitations. Based on the credits in the bios, I can only assume they did not try to get away with the same things when submitting to those other publications, so why do they do it for this site? Perhaps as a way of saying, we do not deserve their best work. Then they get all huffy when something is rejected or post on other sites about the poor editors at the site I work with.
The novelist I spoke of obviously didn't feel that way. First she chose something she knew, a writing-related topic. Then she followed the guidelines perfectly and still managed to add some style. The piece was perfect––I didn't even need to add or subtract a comma––and she proudly added her bio, maybe the best bio to ever appear on the site.
As writers we may have to lower our standards in order to support our creative habit. Still, everything you write, whether for your blog or a letter to the local newspaper should meet your highest standards, because it is your name, and you should want it associated only with your best work.