Mother, May I?

permission to write or to be a writerRecently a colleague asked me to speak with a friend of hers who is just starting out in his first writing job and needed some advice. But when her friend called me, I discovered he didn’t need advice on pronoun-antecedent agreement or parallel construction, or even the creative process. What he was really looking for was permission to be The Writer in the room.

My instructors used to call this the Imposter Syndrome, and it afflicts people starting out in just about any industry. You feel unready, unproven, and unworthy to be doing the job you’ve been trained to do. When my older sister started closing deals around the country in her medical sales job, she said she felt like the briefcase she carried should say “Big Fake” in big, bold, white letters on the side. Despite her success, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t deserve it.

Compounding this new writer’s anxiety was the fact that he had been charged with overseeing the company’s blog, not only by writing his own entries but also by editing the mediocre ones submitted by his colleagues. This included the company’s leadership, whose second-rate prose he was charged with spinning into gold. No pressure, right?

“How do I tell them their writing isn’t very good?”

“What do I say if they complain that I changed too much?”

“What if I make them all hate me?”

We’ve all been there, thrust into a situation that makes us uncomfortable because we’re unsure of ourselves. But sometimes you just have to swallow the fear and remind yourself what’s what. Here’s what I told him:

Just worry about doing the job you were hired to do. You have the training. You have the expertise. You have the title. So own them. And stop worrying about people who might try to snatch them away from you. Besides, they won’t. They don’t have the time, or most likely the desire. And if anyone does tell you that you changed too many words on their brilliant entry, diplomatically tell them that it didn’t seem all that brilliant to you. If they persist in giving you grief, pull out your business card and point to where it says “copywriter.”

Above all, remember that your supervisor is going to judge you on the quality of the blog, and capitulating to the grumblings of bent-out-of-shape co-workers will get you a bad review. The blog is the boss here, so serve it well. I’m not saying to be a belligerent, unbending bastard whose mantra is My way or the highway. But don’t sacrifice your own standards because you don’t think you’re capable or worthy of enforcing them. Especially when it comes to something like writing, because everyone thinks they can write. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. A quick visit to any website with comments enabled will tell you that.

It’s a lot for a new writer (or a new salesperson, or a new IT manager, or a new cobbler) to take in and integrate into his professional life. It requires a maturity that not every 22-year-old has. I know I didn’t. But experience definitely helps, and it strikes me that no matter what job we’re in, or at what stage of our career, we should all own our titles. And, more important, let others own theirs.

Said ownership isn’t always easy. Sometimes it requires us to respectfully, diplomatically, gently – even lovingly – tell those who insist on cooking in our kitchen that while we appreciate the offer, there’s only one apron.

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