The bird is the word

Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. I think that’s why it’s become so easy for people to dismiss those who work with words as unnecessary expenditures in hard times.

Somewhere between celebrating baby’s first spoken word and listening intently for the final declaration of the dying, we learn scorn for the towering babble around us.

After all, damn near everyone has words. Uses words. Speaks them and hears them, signs them — even people with their own languages make sounds in a way that means something to them. Words are the pennies of life, the lowest common denomination of communication currency. You throw out words, you toss them off, you don’t spend them carefully.

Thus the special scorn for those who would  make their living, or claim some particular talent for, assembling those words into sentences. When just about anyone can toss off the occasional witticism, or say something that strikes you as profound — and let’s face it, those profundities and witticisms are on posters and pins all around us, how hard can it be? — why would you need anyone to do it professionally?

Book publishers have been cutting back on editorial staff (and certain best-selling authors have been heard to say they don’t need editors) for years. Network television has become unwatchable for those who prefer the well-scripted drama or comedy, as broadcasters have learned they can spend a lot less money if they don’t use writers: it’s called reality TV  — put impossible people in improbable situations and watch the car wreck unfold. Why use scripts when people can speak for themselves? Who cares if what they’re saying is banal, trite, repetitive, boring, ungrammatical tripe? Viewers will stay tuned for the car wreck.

And don’t even get me started about the newspaper industry and its growing disdain for editors and writers — as if “citizen journalists” will ever bring the same level of professionalism to the craft as trained reporters and writers. (I love that the Wikipedia entry on citizen journalism begins with the disclaimer that it may need to be edited for grammar, style or cohesion. Ha! Exactly my point.)

Therein may lie the rub, at least for newspaper reporters and editors: we’re a craft, not a profession or even a trade. Anyone can apply salve and a bandage to a cut, but that person is not considered a doctor; anyone can hammer a nail but that person is not considered a carpenter.  But a writer is someone who puts a string of words down on paper. A reporter is someone who reports.

Some of us go to school to learn how to write and edit — or usually to hone skills that we already have to some extent. But our training isn’t recognized as something that sets us upart from the madding crowd, particularly in these days when computers have allowed everyone to have a voice, to publish their thoughts — just as I’m doing right now. Before blogs, this would have been a diary for my eyes only, or a rant over a few bottles of wine with friends. There are no professional standards that a trained journalist can be said to have met — the professional standard is one’s portfolio of clippings. But when the bottom line is all that counts, a citizen journalist who works for free can be more valuable than a reporter who demands to be paid a fair, living wage for work that is the product of training and talent.

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