Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.
A funny thing happened when I set out to blog about Sturgis’s Law #8. I kept putting it off. It’s been months since I blogged about #7. A couple of days ago I sat myself down and said, “You can do this. Do it.”
But I couldn’t.
Out walking yesterday morning, turning Law #8 over and over in my mind, I realized that I didn’t like the way it was worded: “People tend to define problems in a way that makes them part of the solution.” It overlapped too much with Sturgis’s Law #18, “Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” (Don’t worry, I promise we’ll get there before the end of the millennium.) What Sturgis’s Law #8 should say is this:
People tend to define problems in a way that lets themselves off the hook.
It’s OK for me to do that, right? I’m Sturgis, after all, and these laws really are hypotheses based on my observations. Which is to say they’re subject to revision. (I really do have revision on the brain these days . . .)
This is what I was getting at. Think of how tempting it is for white women to assume that sexism is a bigger problem than racism, and for black men to think the opposite. Women of color get stuck with putting us all back on the hook, where we belong.
Wade into almost any discussion about the problems confronting the town, the nation, the world, and you’ll hear plenty of people insisting that the problems could be solved if only they would shape up. The they changes according to the issue, the time, and the place, but the gist is usually that if it weren’t for them life would be hunky-dory.
What does this have to do with writing and editing? I’m so glad you asked. As an editor, I sometimes hear editors complaining about writers who snark about their edits. As a writer, I sometimes hear writers complaining about the editors who butchered their manuscript and messed with their voice. Just about all of us have had occasion to bitch about agents, editors, and publishers who were too obtuse, lazy, illiterate, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-genre, anti-literary, and/or obsessed with the bottom line to give our work a fair shake.
And sometimes we’re at least 90 percent right. But even then it’s worth considering the possibility that maybe as editors we were a little heavy-handed, or as writers we might be a little too touchy, or that our work isn’t as ready for prime time as we thought.
The paradoxical thing about this approach is that it’s empowering. It means we can do better and get better results. If the problem is all someone else’s fault, there’s not much we can do about it except bitch.