“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Steve Jobs –Stanford University commencement speech, 2005
It’s ironic that, in this quote that bounced all over the Internet, TV and newspapers after Steve Jobs’ death last week, he never called his work a job.
Work, career, calling, employment, profession, occupation, vocation, trade—all synonyms for that thing you do which–in theory–pays your bills, feeds your family, secures your future and–even more theoretically–satisfies your soul. On behalf of the many, many people who currently don’t have one, I recognize that a good job is precious. I am lucky. I found a vocation that does the bill paying and soul satisfying at the same time. Over the past week, I’ve come to truly appreciate that.
I was on Facebook when the death of Steve Jobs was announced, and the resulting chatter was awesome, both in volume and in content. For a little while, the world seemed to come together to show respect for an innovator who did great work. He was mourned, lauded, and quoted.
The above quote was the one that stuck out for me. It has stayed in my head this past week. Great work. Not job. Work. How do I–and you, my fellow writers–do great work?
I think it starts with respect.
1. Respect the language. For writers of English, we know our language is complex, nonsensical and difficult. Crazy rules. Weird constructions. Nevertheless, a person who wants to use language as a tool of his work must master it. In other words, grammar matters. Spelling counts. Technique is vital. There’s no excuse for someone who claims to be a professional writer to confuse hear/here, your/you’re, bare/bear, it’s/its, or misuse forms of punctuation. From an editor’s point of view, it tells me the writer is careless and lazy and doesn’t mind if I know it. It reflects your work ethic, right there in black and white. If you want to do great work as a writer, respect and master your language. It is the foundation of story. You can’t build a good story without a strong foundation.
2. Respect the craft. Storytelling is an art that connects the world and records its history. Storytellers create new worlds that help us examine and understand this one. This is no small thing. Erase the word “just” from your vocabulary when speaking of your work. Some writers use just to justify doing a mediocre job. “It’s just fiction.” “It’s just entertainment.” Really? You spend day in and day out at this, and you can belittle it? The lightest comedy can make a person laugh in a time of unhappiness. A juvenile mystery can give a kid a sense of power and control. Does “just” apply to that?
3. Respect the reader. When I work as an editor, I form a mental bond with the manuscript’s imaginary readers. I use “we” in comments to explain to the author why a scene isn’t working or why another one is delightful. I advocate for the reader as well as the writer. So, when “we” see a typo or factual error, we become unhappy. Don’t you, the writer, respect us enough to do your homework and get the facts straight? Don’t think that “just” because it’s fiction, you are not obligated to show an accurate reflection of police procedure if you are writing a mystery; or getting place names correct if you are using a real setting; or you can fudge on historical details if you are writing about an actual event. I’m your reader. I trust you to tell me the truth in this story. I expect you to work hard and get it right. When I see mistakes, I lose my trust in you as a writer and my respect for your work. It’s that simple.
Does “great work” as a writer mean you must produce a masterpiece that will be read through the ages? No. It means you will use language correctly and efficiently; you will tell a story that is logical and entertaining; and you will create a product with parts that do their jobs accurately and well.
After all, if Steve Jobs had worked as a writer, don’t you imagine his stories would have been daring, innovative, well-crafted, and fun?
Whatever your genre, put your energies to creating something that is worthy of the word story. Create a product that works efficiently, that meets a need, and entertains, and you’ll have done a worthy job.
Great work. Go do some.