Sunday, August 30, 2009

Lessons learned

I've made more than my share of mistakes as a newspaperman.

Years ago, I wrote a story about a guy going into a sports hall of fame. Don't remember who it was or which hall.

I wrote that he'd gotten his just deserts; he'd gone into the HofF. Fine.

When I got back to the office, I found that the copy editors had turned just deserts into just desserts. Actually, just deserts is correct. I looked it up, made a copy of the dictionary page and left it in my friend's mail slot; he'd edited the story. The dictionary said that just deserts had the same root as deserves, so I knew I was right.

The next day, I found the same piece of paper in my mail slot, with a not-so-nice euphemism scrawled on it in big letters. We weren't really friendly for a few days, but we got over it. Probably 15 years later, we're in different states, but we exchange regular emails.

But I did learn from the error. Never use just deserts in a story — unless some chef is being honored, and just desserts will have a double meaning — and never show your friend up with a dictionary.

Here's another example. In 1997, several of us — all writers — were talking about the end of the century and the millennium. Everyone there but me thought that 1999 was the end of the 20th century. I said, "No, it's not." One of the woman, an editor for a weekly magazine, said, "Yes, it is." "No, it's not," I repeated.

Then I explained in my best Socratic method. "What was the first year?" I asked. "The first year? What are you talking about?" "The first year of the current calendar," I said, "was 1. Not 0. It was 1. The 10th year was 10, the 100th year was 100 and the 1,000th year of the first millennium was 1000. That means that the first year of the second millennium was 1001. The last year of the second millennium was 2000, and the first year of the third millennium will be 2001."

My logic didn't go over well. I was right, as I was with just deserts, but my I-know-better-than-you-do attitude probably alienated everyone who was listening. That editor, once one of my biggest fans, suddenly became an enemy of sorts. She killed at least one perfectly good story of mine for no apparent reason, and from then on she shot down my story ideas. I rarely wrote for her again.

Being right isn't enough. Journalism and life in general are all about being a good listener, knowing the times to take your shots, cultivating your sources and your friends, knowing when to just shut up.

What I said was right; saying anything at all was totally wrong.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

Entries from The Dog Blog
Blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

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