God, how I hated her. And yet at the same time I fiercely wanted her approval, this little tank of a woman with the short-cropped steel grey hair. It was the most desperate of love/hate relationships, because at the same time she infuriated me she inspired me. "She" was my high school English teacher.
Mrs. Van den Beuken was roughly the shape of a square. She was short and wide, with steely eyes and a look of determination on her face. She brooked no shenanigans, that one, and she was my high school nemesis and mentor. She drove me crazy, to be honest, as her expectations were absurdly high in my eyes. I will never forget getting an assignment back in Grade 10 and finding a big fat zero scrawled on it in red ink, with the comment "This stinks". Ok, she totally busted me as I had been up far too late, forgotten about the assignment, and wrote it in the school cafeteria in the 10 minutes just before class, but I was still outraged. I was in Grade 10, dammit! Why was she riding me like a pony?!?
In Grade 11 I got a chance to look at a graded test from another student, one of our star athletes. He was a sweet guy, and super talented on the sports field, but not nearly as strong academically. I noted, however, that she had been much kinder in grading his efforts, and I took my outrage to her, sure she would see the injustice of treating me differently. Not a chance. She fixed those steely eyes on me and told me to go ask the football coach why he treated the superstar athlete harder than the other kids on the field, and why he expected more of him. She explained that if you have a gift or a skill then you should be held to a higher standard, and expected to excel. She told me if I wanted a free ride I should probably switch schools, because she wasn't going anywhere and planned to request to be my English teacher every semester until graduation. And she told me I should get used to red ink, because if I thought she was tough then I would be stunned when I worked with an editor.
By the time I reached Grade Twelve other students were coming to me to proof read their work. I still made errors, but I had learned to accept that and understand that one simply used those experiences to improve. I learned to not take corrections of spelling or grammar personally. That square little woman changed how I thought, and while I stopped writing for many years the fact that I can write at all is a testament to her and her refusal to accept mediocrity.
I was reminded of her recently when I saw a poster someone had created to advertise an event. The poster, which was shared on social media, contained a couple of glaring errors, the kind that make you wince because they detract from the message being shared. I replied to the Twitter message containing the poster link (and I won't share the subsequent fallout, but I will say that if the person responsible had ever encountered "The Tank", as I called Mrs. Van den B on bad days, they would have understood that this sort of constructive advice is not personal) and suggested that these mistakes matter - and so they do.
You have one chance to make a first impression. In writing or marketing this is perhaps even more the case, because no one knows or cares who created the poster or document. Spelling errors, lapses in grammar and similar mistakes affect how the quality of the work is perceived. And while we all make mistakes (I do, in this blog, all the time) it is fundamental to recognize that part of writing is the desire to improve, even if it takes making errors, and having others point them out, to do it. It is all about having pride in our work, like the contractor who did some work in my house and when he was screwing in light switch plates made sure that the little indents in each screw pointed straight up and down. I asked him why he bothered and he simply said: "Because I take pride in my work and another tradesperson will see that and know I am someone who cares about quality." Huh. Who knew?
Now, let's be clear on a few things. I am not some social media grammar and spelling cop, as for me social media is a free for all and I care more about message than about spelling. But if one is producing documents for the public - articles, press releases, posters and the like - then one should be trying to ensure they meet a very high standard for accuracy and quality. It reflects on the organization, business or individual if you do any less or accept any less. If I am going to put my name on something then I want it to be of the highest quality I can achieve and if I fail - which I do and will - then I will acknowledge it, correct it if I can and accept full responsibility without excuse or a "dog ate my homework", olly-olly-oxen-free attempt at escape (The Tank never believed that dog thing, anyhow).
So, what to do if you are not a professional writer but are creating documents for the public that you want to reflect well on your cause and achieve a high standard? Well, you can hire a professional writer to create them (hey, I don't do my own surgery, dentistry or car repairs and always hire a professional - why is it people think writing is any different?), or you can ask a friend who has strong language skills to put a second set of eyes on your work to catch any errors that might have escaped you. There is no more shame in that than asking someone to check out our plumbing because we aren't a plumber or our electrical panel because we aren't an electrician.
For the record I play with language a lot now. In this blog I will often do things I would never do in my professional work, like using the occasional profanity, the prolific use of dashes and run on sentences and even starting sentences with "and". These things would make The Tank insane, and I suppose in some ways it is a gentle and final "f" you to the woman who made me lose sleep, cry on occasion and frequently want to bludgeon her with a thesaurus. The funny thing is, though, even though I play with language and even though every single time I start a sentence with "and" I get a little shiver of excitement at pulling one over on The Tank, I love that woman more with every word I write, because she taught me that quality matters and that if your goal is mediocrity then you will never improve. Thanks to The Tank I learned to write - and to her I say, wherever she is, thank you - and write on, Mrs. Van den B, write on.