Monday, June 21, 2010

Do you write young or old? And does it matter?

I was recently told by an editor who handles submissions at a print and online magazine that she can spot an “older” writer by how that writer observes grammar rules and uses punctuation. For example, old writers, she tells me, often use the serial comma, capitalize the first letter following a colon, put two spaces between sentences, and occasionally use what she calls “grandma” words -- like delightful, lovely and elegant (notice how I didn’t use the serial comma after lovely?).

Also, she says, older writers use too many dashes (both en and em), structure a piece in longer paragraphs, put “the end” or a dingbat after the last line, submit work that has been meticulously proofed, sometimes set up their email cover notes to like traditional business letters, and are often extremely well-mannered. Apparently these last two -- which might strike you as desirable -- can backfire with a much younger editor who is used to abbreviated quick-fire notes, interprets politesse as unnecessary blather, and sees a long missive as nothing more than a time suck.

Younger writers, she said, flaunt rules, get to the point (sometimes too) quickly, skimp on even perfunctory politeness in their cover notes, apparently never print out anything for a manual proofreading and instead rely entirely on spell check (resulting in correctly spelled words that are wrong in context – from/form).

The younger group, she told me, also often can’t correctly identify the form which they’ve written or propose to write (essay, opinion piece, feature, travel narrative), and more or less have never heard of keeping good-faith business interactions confidential, instead posting guarded editorial email addresses, direct phone numbers, fees, contract clauses and other information online, sometimes in an unnervingly near-instantaneous click.

Younger writers, she also observed (or at least those who appear or sound young via email, texts, and Twitter), use more pop culture references, respond much faster to an editor's notes (not, she admitted, always a good thing, often indicating lack of careful thought), and include more personal information in their communications (this she likes, as it gives her a window into a new-to-her writer's worldview).

So who, I asked her, who would she rather work with to fill her magazine and site? "I couldn’t care less. In the end, it's about the voice, the writing, their publishing experience, a great idea, and professionalism. Those come in all ages and styles. The rest is incidental. "


This editor works at a general interest media venue, but I wonder if the same is true for those whose publications/sites which are much more narrowly focused on a niche demographic. Do they weed out writers at one or the other end of the age spectrum based on how young or old they seem to be on the page? And how does one define young and old? Is it simply all relative to the age of the editor at the other end of the exchange? Or to the perceived readership of the media outlet?

Sometimes, when I'm writing for a venue whose readership is a lot younger than I am, I do find myself looking more carefully at my language, the cadence of the sentences, and spending a bit more time researching cultural references that will speak to that demographic. But that's when I'm writing the piece. I never really thought about how the query letters and other editorial communications might come into play. Have you?


drew myron said...

This is so interesting, and mirrors what I've noticed in general business life.

I'm guilty of all of the 'old' writing — love the em dash, commas, long paragraphs and proofed manuscripts. And I've always maintained a guarded privacy between business and pleasure. I always thought it was a good thing, but now I'm questioning myself.

Good things to think about.


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece Lisa. I think about this often when I work with undergrads and sometimes envy their spunk (like Eggers' verve), but I wouldn't trade a lyric sentence for a punchy one if it meant stumbling over grammar.Too often that's the trade-off!


Susan Bearman said...

Oy, doomed by good grammar and being polite? Let's hope not. I guess I should be happy that it's still voice that counts. Had more to say, but wouldn't want to be accused of fogey-writing.

Anonymous said...


So, it's not just my wrinkles that show I'm old! Is trying to write young like trying to squeeze into too tight jeans when you're over the hill? Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

Judith Norkin

Anonymous said...

As an editor, I can tell you that grammar/spelling problems occur across the board. Older writers will also give you way more personal information than you want to know. Many older writers I work with tell me all about their financial and health problems. It is a big turn off. But what matters most is the writing. I can put up with annoying social interactions as long as the writing is up to par. It’s not easy to find writers who take the time to research our company and understand our style.

Eeleen Lee said...

As long as ageism doesn't come into play where your MS is concerned