Write For Your Readers, Not For Revenge

Save your vendettas for your personal journal. Your readers don’t care.

professor
Photo by Chris Blonk on Unsplash

Have you ever written a story, had it all ready to publish, had your images and tags picked out, and you read it one last time, and…

You just knew it wasn’t as good as it could be?

And you couldn’t figure out why. You knew you couldn’t publish it until you did figure out what was wrong, and fixed it.

Let me tell you a story — the story of one of my stories — and how I finally figured out what was wrong.

“Write about something with deep personal meaning,” they said

As a teenager, I got into computers. At first, I just used them to play video games, but after a while, I learned to program them, and write my own video games. I even wrote a version of a bot called ELIZA that could carry on a reasonably intelligent conversation with a human.

As a 19-year-old sophomore in college, then, it seemed only natural to declare computer science as my major. I loved building computer programs — now I was on my way to getting paid to build them!

Unfortunately, I had no reference point, other than my imagination, to understand what a career in computer programming would actually be like on a day-to-day basis.

It wasn’t until I graduated and entered the world of work that I discovered that I hated rush-hour commutes. I hated cubicles. I hated department meetings. I hated the Agile development paradigm and scrum meetings and code refactoring and all the other stupid jargon in my industry. I tried to fit in for 18 years and then I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I wanted to write a story warning college students that the world of work is not necessarily what they think. They need to find out what it’s really like sooner, rather than later, while they still have time to change direction.

A letter to my younger self

I decided to write a letter to my 19-year-old self, that college sophomore who was about to declare a major. I thought, what would I tell him so he wouldn’t spend nearly two decades of his life doing something that made him unhappy?

I wanted to tell 19-year-old me, Look, you’re going to have to earn a living somehow. But you can do that any way you want. Go get exposure to as many different ways to earn a paycheck as possible, so that you have plenty of information on which to base your career choice.

My advice was to supplement learning done in college with real-world learning acquired through summer jobs.

  • Spend one summer working in an office, to find out if office life is for you
  • Spend one summer working in sales, because every person can benefit from being well-versed in the art of persuasion
  • Spend one summer working in a restaurant, to learn how to deal with the public and to be part of a team
  • Spend one summer volunteering, so that making the lives of others better becomes a lifelong habit

I started a new story and quickly fleshed out each of these bullet points. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out an introduction. I knew that wasn’t a problem unique to me; introductions are the hardest part for many writers. I just hated it that so many readers might miss out on such good career advice because I couldn’t come up with three or four opening paragraphs.

“I’m Dr. Neville Fabersham from Oxford, and I don’t mean Oxford, Mississippi”

One of the general-education requirements in college was Freshman Composition, but I didn’t take it as a freshman — I put it off until my senior year.

At least as a senior I’d have first chance to register for classes, and therefore I could take the class from the “cool professor” in the English department, Dr. Stevenson. However, when I got my class schedule, I discovered I’d been bumped from Dr. Stevenson’s class into the class of the other professor teaching Freshman Composition in the 9:40 Tuesday-Thursday time slot.

Dr. Neville Fabersham.*

( * not his real name )

Oh, how I hated that man. I hated him from the first day of the semester, from the very first sentence he uttered that day.

“I’m Dr. Neville Fabersham from Oxford, and I don’t mean Oxford, Mississippi.”

He was such a pompous priss. I hated his British accent. I hated his tweed jackets. I hated his choice of topics for writing assignments. I hated his pretentious lectures, most of which had little to do with getting better as a writer.

I think he hated me too. Of course, he seemed to hate most people, so I was in good company.

Back to that introduction…

If I had to summarize the letter I was writing to 19-year-old me in just a few words, I would tell him, become well-rounded at an early age.

That reminded me of one of Dr. Fabersham’s typically haughty lectures.

“The value of getting a liberal arts education is to become culturally literate. If you can expound upon the works of Dickens, if you know where Constantinople was, if you can drop a witty quote from George Bernard Shaw, well, then you’ll be a hit at dinner parties. You’ll be a sought-after guest.”

I decided that paragraph would open my story, my letter to 19-year-old me. Then I spent the next four paragraphs deriding the fact that the “well-rounded man” Dr. Fabersham’s course made me was in no way ready for the real world.

I pointed out that finding work you love is so much more important than being a sought-after guest at dinner parties. Therefore, I said, if life advice is what you seek, don’t go to a foppish old poot from Oxford — England, that is, not Mississippi.

There. Twenty-five years after my semester in Freshman Composition, and twenty years after he died, I finally had my revenge on Dr. Fabersham.

Revenge indeed — but at whose expense?

The expense of my readers, that’s who.

Five paragraphs in, and I had not given them even the tiniest sample as to the value they’d find in the rest of my story. All they knew at that point was, I had an English professor I couldn’t stand.

Why in the world would they continue reading?

You don’t write for you, you write for your readers — so save the revenge for your personal journal.

Thank goodness I figured this out before pressing Publish. I rewrote my introduction, shortening Dr. Fabersham’s quote to only two lines. By the end of paragraph two, I made it clear I would be helping my college-age readers avoid a career that would leave them unhappy.

Although I sacrificed my revenge on my professor, the revised story ended up becoming one of my highest-earning stories to date. It was curated in Education and Work, recommended by Medium’s editors, and it was accepted into a Top-50 publication.

Thanks for reading! The link to the completed story is below. If you’d like to read more from me, please sign up for my mailing list.

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher https://www.buymeacoffee.com/paulryburn Twitter: @paulryburn

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