Yes, and: taking my own advice

Wednesday 11th November, 2015

Great writing tips were the focus of this year’s Successful Freelancing session in Birmingham last week. As part of the Careers Cafe strand of the Museums Association conference, I’d planned to share good principles for working out your tone and style as a freelancer, your message and how to put it across simply. And as it turned out, I needed to put my own advice into practice immediately… here’s why.

A key idea of the session was the need for freelancers in museums and heritage to take a ‘Yes, and’ approach to work, life and creativity. I’d encountered this from Tina Fey, the comedian and improvisation expert, who in her book Bossypants tells us:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike… In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

I do believe that if you take the ‘Yes, and’ approach to your work as a freelancer, you are more likely to find that obstacles become opportunities, and difficulties can turn into chances to build relationships. You are someone who helps clients solve problems, using your experience from a wide range of projects and institutions.

So this was all good. And then, the day before the conference, a book review I’d written appeared in the new edition of Museums Journal. The piece was about good writing in museum text – specifically art interpretation – and the need for clarity and simplicity. But through an editing snafu, now there was an error in the first paragraph, a mix-up between the word implies and its often-confused cousin infers. My article about good writing now contained bad writing.

If you are thinking ‘don’t worry, no one will notice’, perhaps you don’t spend much time on planet museums+heritage. When I arrived at the MA conference to give my session, the very first person I ran into said: ‘I was reading your piece in Museums Journal on the plane over’. He hesitated and looked suddenly shy. I said: ‘Did you see the error in the first paragraph?’ He said ‘Infers and implies? Yes, I was wondering whether to mention it.’

Professionally, it’s pretty important that my clients know my grammar and spelling are up to scratch if they’re thinking of employing me as a writer, interpretation consultant or trainer.

Yet that isn’t the whole picture here. Everyone makes mistakes. As we say in the TextWorkshop writing courses I give with Dea Birkett, everyone has a blind spot for some grammatical nicety or common spelling. In one exhibition for which I wrote text, somebody in-house consistently changed my minuscule back to miniscule so that the incorrect version eventually appeared on the panels.

And we are all still learning. I discovered the unexpected meaning of the word pulchritude only the other day. (Click it if you don’t know! You’ll be surprised.)

So how could I emerge from the episode with bruised grammar-ego restored, and also with relationships strengthened? How could I maintain my positive freelance tone and style?

I emailed editors at MJ explaining the problem but without assigning any blame. After all, they wouldn’t have changed the opening paragraph if they hadn’t felt it could be improved. I then suggested that if anyone wrote in pointing out the irony of the error, that we could craft a response together. Maybe we could try to make it light-hearted.

MJ responded immediately with an apology, offered to print a correction and change the online edition. I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that and I’m very grateful. In the end, instead of asking for a correction, I wrote a letter to MJ which will be published in the next edition. I hope when you see it, you’ll feel that I have captured something of the ‘Yes, and’ approach to freelancing.

I’ve also discovered an entire book about applying ‘Yes, and’ thinking to creativity and collaboration. It’s by people from The Second City theatre in Chicago, where Tina Fey trained. I’ll report back.


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