Story Starts

“No one wants a history lesson, Meredith,” the marketing project manager said about the copy I’d written—destined for a company newsletter we’d been assigned to create. Our readers would be employees, agents, and clients from around the world. I returned to my digital document and revised the copy, deleting the lead paragraph—the “history lesson.” Job done.

But you know, I adore history. I adore reading a historical setup, a slow build, and an immersion in a new/old world. After all, I did my bachelor’s in history. Perhaps, I’m an outlier.

After I left that company, the project manager produced the newsletter, solo. I opened the first post-Meredith issue, and funny enough, several articles started with history lessons. During my time at the company, the project manager served as an extra pair of eyes on my copy. And for any copy she’d produced, I’d served her in the same way. Missing those extra editing eyes, the newsletter suffered.

Most writers learn sooner or later that it’s easier to edit someone else’s work than your own, which makes hewing to your own exactitudes challenging. In fact, most people find it far easier to edit someone else’s work than to create copy.

An editing case in point: at my former workplace, engineers and salespeople would say to me, “I want this [product or project] covered in the next newsletter.”

“Great,” I’d say. “Let’s meet to discuss what you want.”

The person wouldn’t have time to meet with me.

“Okay, then send me the info you want me to work with.”

I wouldn’t hold my breath. Creating material for an article never made their priority lists. In their minds, I guess, a newsletter piece—informative, accurate, and easy to read—appeared by magic.

Actually, such a situation did call for a magic trick. My magic trick: I’d write bogus copy to send to my engineer/salesperson. They’d read with alarm. Inaccuracies! Missing details! Unnecessary details! Within hours, they’d reply with an edited version of my bogus copy attached.

Inaccuracies? Corrected.

Missing details? Included.

Unnecessary details? Strikethroughs.

Funny enough, many times, an engineer would comment my lead: “Let’s start with some background information about how the [product/project] came into being . . . “ Like, a history lesson? Hahaha! Not happening.

I’d copyedit their marked-up copy, and voilà, the finished article, an impressed engineer/salesperson, and a happy project manager.

Many times, after reading their article in the newsletter, the engineer/salesperson praised me. “Your understanding of this [product/project] is remarkable!” No, but I understand how much people prefer editing copy over producing it.

I’m also someone with enough reading and writing experience to shy away from absolutes such as “No one wants a history lesson.”

With creative writing, absolutes abound: “Show don’t tell,” “Start in medias res,” “Cut the adjectives,” “Always use the active voice,” and their like. I can recall creative-writing professors warning me away from writing stories in the first person. A story in second person? Impossible! Nowadays, first-person stories are more abundant in lit mags than third-person stories, and for a long period, second-person stories trended, hot.

A recent story of mine—which doesn’t start with a history lesson. Read it at Subnivean.

Several years back, I read Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, in which she recounted the number of times she’d give advice to young writers only to immediately read counterexamples in a Chekov story. A brilliant writer always proves exactitudes wrong. Has someone told you recently to cut your adjectives? Send them back to read The Great Gatsby.

My advice is to be elastic. Be open-minded. Write the story that begins with a history lesson—if it fits. But do change-up your methods! And if possible, have someone edit your work or at least give it a critical read. They’ll see your blind spots.


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