Ego, Emotion, and the Professional Writer

What’s on the iPod: Woodpile by Frightened Rabbit

It was one of those weekends crammed full of stuff. Friday was our only day to “relax” in the evening. We went into town for First Friday happenings, found dinner, then came home and vegged out in front of the television.

Saturday morning we were up at 6 and out the door at nearly 7. We drove five hours to my hometown for my class reunion, arriving at noon at the venue. It was a rainy, miserable ride, but the minute we got into town, the sun came out and it turned into a glorious day.

What a great time! Old friends and classmates — not a lot, as we’d planned in on the spur of the moment — were hugging and laughing together like it was yesterday and we were still in school. Okay, a LOT of yesterdays ago. 🙂 It was a wonderful time and it was great to see such good friends again.

Then back in the car for the five-hour return trip. Oy.

Yesterday, you’d think we would be sitting still. Not so. Back in the car for an hour drive south for our collective meditation. One of the monks was visiting –an Indian monk who comes around every year. He’s inspiring and a very bright spot on the planet, so we had to make time to see him. It was an inspiring, enlightening time with our second family.

The discourse the monk gave us was long, but contained a lot of great things to think about. One of his points was why the monks in our group sleep on the floor or the ground. He said, “The moment you lower yourself to the ground, you humble yourself. That’s how our guru wants us to approach our lives.”

Wow. What a powerful thought. Humbling ourselves.

That’s not to say we become pushovers. In fact, he addressed that alongside his point. We are to approach life humbly, not meekly. The goal is to deal with people from a modest, respectful position. That usually breeds the same reaction, but it’s not okay for others to take advantage, and we must assert what we know is right when appropriate.

It’s taking the ego out of the equation.

Why is that good? Because ego causes us to lose sight of the goal, to react out of emotion (“How DARE they do/say that to me!”), and keeps it on a factual level. For us writers, what would that do for us? If we stuck to the facts — this person owes money to the business or that person harmed my business or that other person isn’t behaving ethically — and we suspend the hurt, blame, and blood lust, could we come to better ways of resolving these issues?

I remember a time when a client was trying to negotiate/explain his per-word payment rate to me. He was clearly making it up as he went. He said I’d be paid per word, but only for those words he chose to use. Oh, and he was going to “round down” to the nearest ten-dollar increment.

My response: that won’t work for me. In my 15 years of writing, I told him, I’d never come across that kind of payment structure, and the uncertainty of what the final payment would be wasn’t clear enough. When I pressed him to define it more clearly and do so in a contract, he became indignant, belligerent, and insulting. He didn’t need a contract because he would never cheat me, and in all his years of working with freelancers, he’d never had one “argue” the rate. (Then he worked with fools, I say, but I digress.)

I kept it professional. My response was, “Then I see we won’t agree. I wish you well. And I hope you know it’s just business — nothing personal.”

There was another note back, with a few nasty words, but they weren’t relevant to the negotiation. His emotions weren’t going to make things better, nor would they change the obvious — I’d already walked away, something he should have done, too.

So when have you been able to remove emotion and keep it professional? Do emotional reactions ever belong in your business?

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  • Gabriella F. August 5, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Hmmm, funny you mention staying professional. I have two stories.

    On one, I dumped a long-term client because a new person assumed oversight of my work, and over a few weeks, it was clear the new person wasn't qualified and would throw me under the bus if there was a problem–even one I didn't create.

    I stayed professional in my emails documenting my resignation. However, I've known many of the people in charge there for two decades, and in person, I was fairly blunt: She's not qualified, there are going to be mistakes, and I'd get blamed.

    The upshot? The people in charge have quietly asked me to come back and they're kicking out the woman who's in over her head!

    Now how glad am I that I stayed professional?! Even when I was in person and more blunt, I was professional–just forthright.

    Second sitch, a new editor has on two articles in a row made edits that changed the meaning of a source's comments. I'm staying professional, but it's getting harder to do that whole, "Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. I'm uncomfortable because…."

    And I sure don't like that I'm going to have to watch him like a hawk so I don't hear from sources that I've misquoted them!

    This whole professionalism thing can be difficult!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Lori August 5, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    That's tough, Gabriella! I love that you solved that first situation so well. Bravo!

    That second one — oy. I was in that situation a while back. The edits/revisions included changing quotes! I was dumbfounded, and I mentioned that the "change" would be taken out of context and would mean something completely opposite. The editor made the change back, but that was the last time we worked together. I think he was indignant about it, but I was relieved. In a few cases, he made us look like fools with his overuse of hyphens.

  • anne wayman August 5, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Other than floor sleeping did the monk have any other hints about how to drop the ego?

  • Paula August 5, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    A friend of mine recently went through Gabriella's second situation when an inexperienced editor butchered (and published) a couple of her articles. She changed the assigned entire scope of at least one;instead of asking the writer to flesh something out the editor re-interviewed sources, which in turn made it seem as if the writer had done something wrong. After much soul searching, my friend called the editor and kept it very professional while outlining how and why she felt the editor had overstepped. To the editor's credit, she listened calmly and apologized.

    My own issue was with my late-paying former client. His constant excuses and total disregard for writers did not make it easy to remain professional, but I did. Like your client, Lori, he tried to paint me as the unreasonable one by saying that he'd paid freelance writers millions of dollars over the past 27 years. Let's see…he probably averaged 3 titles per year, each with 15-20 lengthy freelance articles. Multiply that by 20 years and it equals….lots of writers being underpaid for their services. The sentence he wrote that proves how much he needs good writers? "Rest assured, you will not be the first writer not to get paid."

    I kid you not.

    Some clients don't make it easy to stay professional. But no matter the setting or situation, it's always best to keep your calm. It sure beats saying or doing something you'll soon regret.

  • Gabriella F. August 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    "Rest assured, you will not be the first writer not to get paid." Holy mackerel, Paula!

    Your comment about calling the editor is a good one, too, Paula. On Friday, I actually considered calling him and telling him politely I'm getting concerned. But I'm holding off for now.

    He sends articles to me for review before publication, so at least I can catch mistakes he inserts.

    And I certainly don't want to lose the client. It's been a very productive relationship for years, and he's actually the third editor I've worked with.

    So, so far, it's me watching and politely pushing back.

  • Lori August 6, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Anne, he always has great advice for that. I think the most succinct is "Surrender." It kind of says it all, doesn't it?

    Paula, wow. Is he kidding? He thinks that's a defense? Jeezuz, I hope you're done with him after this.

    Gabriella, I think that's a good way to approach it. My goal is to remain calm. 🙂 Keeping the focus on the problem and off the bullshit excuses and runaround helps. It doesn't hurt to vent to friends offline, either. 🙂 That keeps me from saying something to the client that I'd surely regret.

  • Paula August 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    Rest assured Lori – I dumped that idiot client after he tried using the flu as his excuse for being two months late paying me!

    Gabriella, my friend also told the editor to stick her own byline on any articles she rewrites like that. (One of the minor editing blunders was in an article on astronomy. My friend is a huge astronomy and science nut, so when I read a line near the lead saying "The universe is really big," I knew the editor stuck that in!) But a funny thing happened: A few days later, when another editor at the same place made some minor changes to one of my friend's articles, he ran them by her. He'd never done that before, so she guessed that he'd talked to the lousy editor. He started laughing and said he was sitting next to her when she took my friend's call, and he doesn't want to be on the receiving end of one of those calls!