By David Poulson
I sometimes get emails from people I don’t know who offer to contribute free content to Great Lakes Echo, the Knight Center’s environmental news service.
I usually ignore them. But something prompted me to respond recently, setting off an exchange that left me wondering at the value people place on writing. Here is how it began:
I’m writing because I’d like to offer you an original piece of content for your site greatlakesecho.org. I know your writing Style, and it tends to provoke a positive response in your audience. If you’re interested in having a guest contribution, I would write another post on the same subject, expanding on what you said and perhaps providing a different perspective. Just so we’re clear; I’d be writing this piece just for you and your site. This isn’t some article I’ve had lying around looking for a home. Naturally, I’d also promote the article to my readers, so you’d get a decent boost in traffic once it went live.”
What followed was a list of links to work samples – lame articles linked to advertisements. I assumed the embedded advertising was the reason for this incredible “free” writing offer. The close:
“Thoughts? Shoot me an email and we can discuss it further or figure out the next steps. Thanks for your time, Looking Forward to hearing from you.”
I read the links, ignored the random capital letters and replied:
“I think that the only thing your writing has in common is that you write about fish and sometimes we do. Other than that, I’d say the styles and purpose are very different. Thanks for the offer, but I don’t think the fit is there.”
Incredibly, this came back:
“I am able to write according to your style and purpose
“Please let me know ,are you interested for the further discussion ,If possible please suggest me content idea that would be great fit for your blog”
I was irritated by the garbled syntax, missing words, missing periods and spaces before but not after commas. I replied in full snark mode:
“Our style is to include all of the words in a sentence and to end each one with a period.”
Alas, snark is wasted on the oblivious:
“Really thanks to get back to me lease suggest me content idea ,I am very much interested to work with you”
By now, I was more than irritated and let my displeasure show in the next reply:
“I really would be nervous of content provided by someone unconcerned with proper spelling, punctuation and grammar,”
But I left myself wide open. Haste fueled by indignation made me sloppy. My own reply ended in a comma instead of a period. But instead of using that punctuation misstep to tell me to get off my high horse, my new writing friend persisted with the sales pitch:
“If i am able to fulfill all the requirements ,So may we work together?”
Take a minute to parse the implications of that reply. A writer offered to use proper spelling, punctuation and grammar as if those things are not a given but a list of additional requirements.
I couldn’t let it go. I wrote:
“I admire your persistence. But your messages are so filled with such basic spelling, punctuation and grammar errors that I can only assume you are unfamiliar with writing properly. Content produced in that manner would undermine our credibility. Such content would harm our reputation. Even at free, content produced in that manner is a cost we cannot afford.”
Incredibly, the reply:
I am only here to contact you
My editorial team will write content”
I guess that explains it. I wasn’t talking with the wordsmiths – just the person pitching their talent. Sorry, I’m not buying it – or even taking it for free. If you’re pitching words, you better know how to string them together.
I sighed. And looking back at the exchange, I wondered if I’d been too harsh. Perhaps this person is a victim of a lousy educational system. Perhaps English is not her first language. Perhaps her employer shouldn’t hire someone without the skills to do the job.
Perhaps I was communicating not with a person, but with a robot using algorithms to respond to key words in my replies.
Then I got this from yet another aspiring writer:
“If you all need any addition writers for any of your stories I would love to be accepted to the Great Lakes Echo and write for you all. Weather you all are profit or nonprofit it does not matter to me because all in all, I just love writing and I would work just as hard without money.”
I could have gone snarky again and replied that we didn’t cover math so we didn’t need any addition writers. I could have noted that using the word “all” five times in two sentences is probably excessive. I could have noted the misspelling of whether.
And I should have praised his willingness to work hard without money. With that kind of pitch, that’s how much he should earn.
Feeling guilty about my harsh tone in the earlier exchange, I just hit delete.
But here’s the deal: If I ever build a house, it won’t be a mansion created by a designer featured in Architectural Digest. But it will be by someone familiar with the building code.
You don’t have to produce literary gems or Pulitzer Prize winners to write for Echo. But you do need to know your way around the building code.
David Poulson is the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.