Respect the writer

I was having a conversation with my wife the other day, just yakking, small talk in the car like you do, and she brought up a website written by a client of hers. The client was not a native speaker nor writer of English, and apparently it showed. The site content was full of idioms that didn’t translate particularly well, grammar and syntax errors, and just plain tin-eared turns of phrase.

“They least they could have done was to hire an editor,” she said, “or a localization expert.”

I agreed that this was indeed the very least they could have done. “What they should have have done,” I countered, “was to hire a writer. Not an editor, or a localization expert, whatever that may be, but someone with a distinctive written voice who understands the power of the word, someone who can write relatable human conversational sentences that sound good and ring true. You know. A writer.”

This got me started on a whole rampage about how the writer is generally undervalued in society as a whole, about how, like milk or a quietly reliable friend, people don’t miss us until we’re gone; but I didn’t go on too long, since I didn’t want to spoil a quiet, meditative Sunday (which also happened to be my birthday).

It was neither the time nor the place.

But this is.

Look. We all mess around with computers in middle school, but not everyone claims to be a coder. We all mess around with frog dissection or test tubes, but not everyone claims to be a scientist. Would I stroll into your law office and claim to be a lawyer because I was on the debate team? Nothing would be more ridiculous.

But write one essay about your cute little labradoodle or what you want to be when you grow up, and suddenly and for all eternity, you’re magically a writer.

Not only that, but depending on your high-status managerial job and your expensive university degree, you get to tell professional writers, who’ve spent their entire life perfecting their craft, how to write, and edit and change their work however you see fit.

After all, you could obviously write it all yourself if you just had the time in your busy, busy schedule, plus you’ve earned the right by staying at the office until 7pm every night, most of it shooting the breeze with co-workers.

Let me give you an example of how destructive this myth can be.

Recently, I did a freelance job for a client. Nice enough guy, smart, sharp, CEO of a baby startup that’s doing quite well, paid me on time. He was detail-oriented but fair. Can’t complain about the experience at all. Then I took a look at the just-refreshed website whose copy I’d written, and was shocked to find it completely unrecognizable.

It turns out my client had rewritten it himself, or had it rewritten, from top to bottom, skillfully removing anything that sounded remotely like a human being, while inadvertently adding all sorts of stylistic errors, from basic subject-verb disagreements and dangling participles to replacing the word “and” with an ampersand.

Now, let’s be clear. It’s his company and his website. He paid for the domain, the hosting and the site design. He can damn well put whatever content he wants in there. That’s his right. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice.

Because when decision makers read that content, they’re going to question his judgment. If he posts substandard copy on his website, they’ll think, how is he going to keep my data secure? How do I know he’ll deliver on his contract?

And frankly, they might have a point.

It all comes back to this: Writing means something. It’s more than cutting and pasting a bunch of approved boilerplate, or turning a lot of technical buzzwords into something that vaguely follows the rules. It’s even more than explaining your amazing technological secret sauce, though that’s part of it. It’s telling a story in a way that’s engaging, compelling, and impossible to ignore or forget.

And that’s something only a professional writer can do.

Dave Dumanis is a creative director, copywriter, and longtime veteran of Bay Area marketing and advertising.