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The fruits of failure

I brought this on myself.

I’m invited to speak this week for Professor Stacey Spaulding’s class at Towson University on journalism and new media. She told them that journalists are expected to pepper subjects with questions, and they have come up with more than I could answer in a day and a half, much less in and hour and a quarter on a Thursday afternoon. One of them wants to know how I got into this business, and to be honest, I would have to tell them that I got into it by being a failure.

Oh, it would be tempting to quote Mark Twain and say that I got into journalism because there was no honest work available, but that would be a mere half-truth.

When I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in English, I was accepted into the graduate program in English at Syracuse as a university fellow. In my first year, I took a seminar with a bright young member of the faculty, and wrote a clumsy and amateurish paper. He returned it to me with several pages of single-spaced sarcasm that accurately and devastatingly ripped into the inadequacies of the paper. For the next two years I froze whenever I had to write a paper. I showed that commentary once to a fellow graduate student, who was floored by it, saying that he had never seen anything like it, and it was only years and years later, after having carried it from state to state, that I finally consigned it to a recycling bin.*

What I dodged for my six years at Syracuse, and came to recognize only gradually after leaving, was that though I love reading and love to talk about books, I do not have the temperament for being an academic scholar, for sitting all day in a carrel in the library coming up with publishable insights into texts.

So, after leaving Syracuse, with a dissertation topic approved but the thesis unwritten, I abandoned the Ph.D. for journalism. I hated to do it, but there wasn’t any honest work available.

Since 1980, I’ve found my niche as an editor, enjoying the camaraderie and gallows humor of the copy desk, establishing a small reputation in that circumscribed sphere of endeavor, and even returning to the work after having been laid off during a crisis.

The point of indulging in this personal account is to be able to say to Professor Spaulding’s students that they should not be afraid of false starts and failures, that the disappointments they will inevitably encounter do not have to define them. You are what you can become.


*The instructor, as it happens, was denied tenure in the following year, and the last I heard of him, many years back, was that he was on the West Coast growing succulents for a living.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:58 PM | | Comments (6)


I've come to believe that the signs of a future editorial career are there to be observed, albeit only in hindsight and often after the future editor has wandered about in the desert of other vocations for some while. Did you end up reviewing your college roommates' term papers in exchange for a friendly case of beer? (And thinking "Golly, people don't really write this badly ... do they?") While you were toiling in some unsuitable and unsatisfying job, were you the person to whom all your colleagues directed questions about language, and the person who was entrusted to "have a quick look" at the boss's memos? More generally, did you find yourself just reflexively thinking that a lot of text wasn't really that good, and that maybe if you just moved this bit and deleted this other bit, then ... ah, much better.

It's just that some of us take longer to see the signs than others.

I owe my career in journalism to mom. When I got out of the army in 1966, I had no idea about what I was going to do. I had a degree in English literature and a wife. My mother, an avid reader of everything, including newspapers, suggested I apply to the local daily. I did. Stet.

When I was a semester from receiving my B.A. in journalism and political science, two friends on the school paper, alarmed by my preference to editing instead of reporting, staged an unsuccessful intervention.
No one from the biology department said a word to save me from a life in newspapering ...

I was fished from the typing pool in 1979 by a woman who ran the production department of the management consulting firm that hired me as the secretary for a partner who seldom passed up an opportunity to remind you that he had both an MBA and a JD from Harvard.

She knew what I was in for, and put me on a better path. I started as a proofreader and was about to begin my tour as the extremely junior editorial trainee when all the cool consultants left to form a new firm, taking my mentor with them. Over the weekend, I rose through the ranks to become the third most senior person in the department.

About a year later, I learned that computer companies were hiring smart people who had some publishing experience. That has paid the rent, and then the mortgage, ever since.

I left grad school without the Ph. D. as well. There is no shame in realizing that is not the correct path for you. In some cases that decision is the beginning of wisdom.

Her kids are lucky to get your expertise. I'm kind of jealous. If I'm not too late, tell her I said hey (2010 grad).

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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