Let me tell you about the first real article I ever wrote for a newspaper. Unsurprisingly, this story overlaps with my first ever all-nighter.
Second semester, freshman year of college. After spending the previous semester writing exclusively first-person essays, I had my first real bit of 'news': The nursing department obtained some new training equipment through a grant and I was to cover it. Rather cut-and-dry and boring, but I was a happy little puppy when I left the office, finally with an assignment.
I wouldn't take a journalism class until the next year. All of my writing up to this point had either been MLA composition or free-for-all creative writing. I had always been an okay writer and that was the problem. I could write, but I hadn't considered the technical differences between a seven page paper on serial killers for composition class and a newspaper piece. Don't mistake this for confidence. It was all dumb naivety.
I met with a representative from the nursing department for an interview. I brought five pens and a full blank notebook. And wouldn't you know it, she was just so easy to talk to, like a friend, and so nice. Interviewing wasn't about asking tough questions- it was just talking! Talk, talk, talk, about life and nursing and oh yes, nursing is very hard, my mother is one, so I know, and my aunts too, and la la la, this new equipment is very important, la la la, something something about the grant funding, la la la.
"Oh, and one last little thing," she said as we wrapped up. "Do you think you could e-mail me a copy of the article before it goes to print?"
"Oh." I was stunned. "Um, I guess so?" I thought it was strange, but she so nice that I didn't want to not be nice back. Embarrassing to say I was still concerned with such crap at 18, but it's true.
Deadline was Friday, and as I do when I'm nervous about something I need to write, I procrastinated. I was terrified that if I didn't get it to them as soon as possible on Friday, it wouldn't run, and my nerves kept me from concentrating. After a few sentences in which I announced the nursing department's good fortune, I was stuck. I kept going back over my handwritten notes, trying to extract an extra morsel or two of anything. What more was there to say? They got new equipment, THE END. Still, I knew that I couldn't just hand in a couple of paragraphs, so I unpacked my adjectives. Fantastic! Helpful! Necessary!
My anxiety increased with the hours, until bleary-eyed, I emailed it at 3:45 a.m. But there's no sleep for a worried freshman. I was afraid if I went to bed that I wouldn't wake up for my 9 a.m. photography class. I worked on a class paper until it was time to trudge to the other side of campus. I had never truly stayed up all night before; even at my most insomniac, I still got a few hours of sleep. My ass hurt from hours in my desk chair and my eyes were dry from staring at the computer screen for so long. I didn't drink coffee back then and I truly cannot remember how I went on without it.
It was after photography when I was eating lunch with a friend that the editor-in-chief tracked me down. "We need to talk," she said. "Meet me back in the office."
She started off by slapping on the desk a printed copy of the e-mail I sent with 3:45 a.m. circled. "First off, why the hell are you sending this so late at night?"
"I wanted to make sure you got." I knew that was the stupidest thing I could say as soon as that came out of my mouth. Admitting that I e-mailed a copy of it to the nursing department was also a mistake.
"Never, ever, ever send anyone a copy before it runs. Ever."
Then she went over every error, each eyesore circled in red.
"You wrote out every number. You don't do that. It's 13, not thirteen."
"This sentence is in passive voice. Don't do that. The less words, the better."
"Why are you using adjectives?!"
Eventually I had to admit that I never took a journalism class. She gave me a copy of the AP Stylebook off the bookshelf and told me to study it. She also found something of interest in how the grant was obtained and called up the nursing department to ask a few more questions. I was to come along to see it was done.
One of the most uncomfortable moments of my life was sitting in that conference room with the editor and the nursing rep I had previously chatted like an old friend-- not interviewed, let's get real. I'm older now than the editor was at the time, but I'm nowhere near as tough. She didn't hold back, firing questions with confidence and authority. With the editor, the nursing rep was a different person, defensive and quiet. The only witness to this awkwardness was the tape recorder sitting on the table between them, something which I neglected to bring the first time around (Editor: "What do you mean you didn't tape record the interview?").
There turned out to be no shady business with the grant. We went back to the newspaper office and I worked on the article under the editor's guidance. Around 3 p.m., I finally made it back to my dorm and immediately passed out. I woke up hungry six hours later in complete darkness.
Tempted as I am to only play up my mistakes, I don't think that'd be fair. I was a kid. A trusting, eager-to-please kid, the kind who are pushed over by niceness. Looking back, that editor taught me that the threat of seeming not nice should never get in the way of doing a good job. Unfortunately, it took a few more lessons for this kid to get it.
One thing did stick right away. A week later, I bought my own tape recorder.