On being ... ironic

By Ingrid Sapona

I imagine everyone has days that make them question whether they’re in over their heads, or fundamentally unqualified for their work. An incident this week certainly left me wondering if I’ve been in denial all these years and had me thinking I should find another career.

It comes as no surprise to my readers that I’m not a terrific speller or proofreader. I do my best on both accounts, though I fear it doesn’t always look that way. One of the most vivid recollections I have from when I worked full-time as an intern on a daily newspaper was a spelling mistake I made describing someone’s “roll” on City Council. The fact the copy editor didn’t catch my mistake didn’t make me feel better when the Managing Editor handed me a copy of the printed news page with the word circled in red and a scribbled note about dinner rolls. Ouch!

Since then there have been other inauspicious occasions when my poor spelling and proofreading has caused me embarrassment and frustration. (I do my best to manage client expectations around it and when I provide a quote for an editing assignment, for example, I explicitly state that proofreading is not part of the services I offer.) This week, however, my misspelling of a name in a proposal cost me the project – and caused me to seriously reconsider my line of work.

I had a meeting with a law firm to discuss my putting on a one-hour seminar for their summer students on e-mail best practices – a topic I’ve written about before. We had a very good meeting and at the end of it we discussed their budget and even pencilled in the date and time for the session. Before I left, they asked me to submit a written proposal for their boss, Eric (not the person’s real name).

I put a fair bit of time into the proposal and included a detailed outline of the session. I figured it was time well spent because the outline would serve as the backbone for the PowerPoint. Naturally, before sending it I ran spell check, grammar check, and read it aloud in hopes of catching any errors.

Well, the next day I got an e-mail from them thanking me for the proposal, but saying they decided to use internal resources for the session. My initial reaction was a combination of disappointment and anger. Most of my anger was directed at myself for having provided them with such a thorough outline and for not picking up on cues that might have alerted me to the possibility they might have been using me.

Unable to figure out what went wrong – and figuring I had nothing to lose – I phoned to ask for feedback. After admitting that I was disappointed, I explained that any feedback would be helpful for future proposals. Their response stunned and mortified me. They said, “To be honest, you spelled [Eric’s] name wrong in two places and we felt that was unacceptable, given the nature of the seminar and all.”

Keeping my tears (temporarily) at bay, I calmly thanked them, said I understood, and reassured them that I appreciated their candor. Afterward, figuring I must have typed Eric once with a “c” and once with a “k”, I reviewed the proposal. When I could only find his name in one place, I was confused.

Eventually I found my mistakes: he has a hyphenated last name and I had inserted an extra letter in one name and left out a letter in the second name. The thing is, because it’s an unusual name, when I was preparing the proposal I checked the spelling on the firm’s web site. (I imagine they think I was simply too lazy to look it up – but that’s not the case.) Regardless, I still got it wrong – and it was a deal breaker – and I was devastated.

How can I hope to make a living as a writer or communications consultant if I can’t spell or can’t catch typos? Have I simply managed to bluff my way all these years? Maybe I’ve simply been on a lucky streak that has ended with Eric calling my bluff?

When I started this column, I chose the title because it had a dual meaning. The irony I figured readers would pick up on is that someone whose Achilles’ heel is poor spelling and proofreading would choose a career as a writer. The second irony – the one that I thought I’d be revealing – had to do with the fact that this May marks the 15th anniversary of my business but rather than celebrate, lately all I’ve thought about is that maybe I should have the courage to admit I’m not qualified for this line of work and that I should quit. I’m pleased to say, however, that the title isn’t about either of those things.

For you see, for the past couple days I tried very hard not to write about this incident because I was so embarrassed by it. But, I’ve been so consumed by my grief and frustration over it, I was unable to focus on anything else – much less think of another topic for a column. So, embarrassed or not, my choice was: write about it or skip this week’s column.

But, ironically, by writing about it and facing my embarrassment and fear, I’ve regained some of the perspective I had lost about my qualifications for what I do for a living. Misspelling Eric’s name was clearly embarrassing and the result was unfortunate. But, neither the fact of the misspelling, nor the loss of the work, means I’m fundamentally unqualified to teach about the e-mail best practices or to write for a living. After all, though I know luck has played an important role in my ability to make a living – it wasn’t all luck. Some of my work success must be attributable to substance triumphing over form.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


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