Shortcomings of Applicants

by Doreen Simmons

Chivalrous Aunt Eva is usually asked to take up cudgels on behalf of the browbeaten employee against an arrogant or unappreciative client. This time, however, she takes a sympathetic but practical look from the other side, at the problems encountered by people who for the first time in their lives are confronted with the knowledge of their own shortcomings.

Dear Aunt Eva,

I’m new to the writing and editing business and could use your help. I have been teaching English in Japan for two years and have good references. Due to my 4-year university education, I think I write pretty well. It always looks alright to me, anyhow, and I feel I should be the judge because it is instinct that counts, isn’t it. However, when I applied for an in-house position recently I was surprised to hear from the interviewer that my writing was “not good enough.”

What is “good enough” writing? How do I find out what is wrong with my writing? What can I do to improve it?

B. Lowe Parr

Aunt Eva answers:

People who are articulate speakers tend to assume that writing is just an extension of speaking. It isn’t. It is odd how easily we forget the effort we had to make when we were small children learning to write: the physical challenge of grasping a pencil in our macaroni-like little fingers, of applying the point to the paper firmly enough to make a mark but not so strongly that the point broke off. And it’s not just our hands: the motor skills are directed by a different part of our brain. One part of the brain is assembling phrases and processing them into sentences, and quite a different part is sending non-verbal messages along to our hands. Later in life we learn to use a keyboard, and more parts of our brain are drafted: eyes, to look where our fingertips are going and send messages back, or spatial and tactile memory that guides our hands without our having to look at the keys. As we mature, we take these skills for granted; but they are still running behind the scenes like computer programs.

What, you may ask, is all this about? Simply that these physical skills, these programs that are running, have no direct connection with language production and may get in the way. Being physically able to write does not guarantee that the words will come out as you want them.

The ability to write in a conversational style, for instance, is not a happy accident. A short visit to an Internet chat room to see the things people really write off the top of their heads is revealing. Many of these remarks, even when the grammar and spelling are correct, do not come across as natural utterances, let alone intelligent contributions to a discussion. The ability to express your thoughts in writing, in other words, is not a natural gift that automatically follows on if you can express those same thoughts very well orally. It is something that has to be learned and, once learned, kept in good order.

And this is only one kind of writing. Aunt Eva chose it first because it sounds the easiest. But there are many different levels of writing, in many different areas. You may have a natural talent for some kinds of writing; but that’s not enough. You need to learn your trade—assuming you want to make a profession of it.

In your case, you are obviously an intelligent person, to have a degree from a four-year college. But take a square look at that education: What were you studying? How much writing did you need to do? If you needed to write essays or theses, how carefully were they checked? That is, did your supervisor comment, advise, or correct, or just write a grade at the top? You learn from gathering information and putting it together; but you also learn from mistakes that are corrected, especially if there is a reason given. On the other hand, if your tutor was lazy, or a careless writer, or was one of the new generation who have been taught that any criticism of your paper would discourage you, then you will not have learned anything more than your own studies showed you.

To start with, face the fact that teaching English in Japan doesn’t necessarily qualify you for any other language-related job. The fact that you can write better than your students doesn’t make you an expert. Many Japanese are not taught to compose connected sentences and paragraphs in their own language, let alone English. Every year in the spring, Aunt Eva finds herself shaking her head in sorrow and despair at newly-recruited Japanese staff, college graduates all, who appear to have spent their four academic years marking circles and crosses on multiple-choice papers, and who, when expected to produce a paragraph, start each new sentence at the beginning of a line. You have at least grasped the idea of writing paragraphs, so that puts you one up. Many people, too, when told that their writing is below standard, turn surly and truculent and go off in a towering pout. You have asked for help, so that puts you two points ahead.

In her early days as a rewriter, Aunt Eva herself used to see jobs from an agency that regularly charged extra for putting the translation through the hands of a “native specialist.” In one case, a paper of a distinctly specialist nature had been checked by a laddie who had done nothing but painstakingly go through crossing off the “s"in “towards.” Though her specialization was in quite a different field, Aunt Eva found and corrected several major translation errors with the aid of common sense, a dictionary and her native wit. As she was also employed as a watchdog, she wrote a report on the agency’s work; her employers continued to use the agency, but all the “native specialists” disappeared. Moral: make sure that if you claim expertise, you really have it. Sooner or later you will be found out. This applies, of course, only to the realm of written translations. In the case of television shows, all you have to do is shout louder.

So, since Aunt Eva rather unexpectedly finds herself on the side of the client/consumer, what advice can she give? What is the employer looking for, and how can the applicant meet this expectation?

The first thing—pardon this senile old tabby for being so obvious, but you’d be surprised—the first thing is to write a letter of application that does not have any mistakes in spelling or grammar. If you have been at a university for four years, you should be able to spell its name correctly, and get the right punctuation when abbreviating your degree. Picky, picky, you say? You are applying for a job where accuracy is expected. Can you find the five minor errors in your letter at the top of the column, for example? Final hint for the application: make it easy for the client to get in touch with you. Offer, if possible, details of how you can be reached by phone, fax, and email.

It is best to be positive but realistic about your experience and aims. Aspiring to become a literary translator cuts no ice. The employer wants to know what you can do as of now. Being married to a Japanese is not necessarily an advantage: if your marriage is conducted in English, you will not be improving your Japanese proficiency, whilst if you are operating in Japanese you may be losing touch with your instinct for English.

How to improve if you are not up to standard? Ask for recommendations. Can you have copies of some of the company’s good work, so you can study them and find out where they differ from what you would have written? Get hold of the respected style guides, especially the Chicago Manual of Style. Join SWET and other professional and industry associations. Look at the possibilities of correspondence writing and editing courses offered by US or British universities. Join a writers’ group or find a mentor who is a well-regarded writer willing to comment on your writing.

Don’t give up; the beginning of a career in good writing is the knowledge that you need to learn your trade.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 89 (June 2000)