For years, I’ve been editing, reading and listening to other people’s work. As an editor with The Standard-Speaker, I get to read the work of reporters, who in my mind are professional storytellers, everyday. As a tutor in college, I worked through the writing process with other students. Even before I ever wrote anything of value myself, I’ve always appreciated the art of storytelling.
One of the strange things that seemed to come up often during those tutoring days was the wide spectrum of quality in the writing I looked over. On one hand, there were students who just did not have a knack for writing, or didn’t care at all about the assignment they were doing. These were the hardest people to work with, because I just couldn’t bring myself to be honest with them. Ideally, I could’ve spent hours with them combing over every detail and inspiring them, but I didn’t have the patience and time, and they didn’t have the skill and/or motivation to make that time count.
On the other hand, there were some very good storytellers. Some of them were, at the same time, bad writers. In most cases, it was not a failing of the American education system. In fact, most of the writers that I’m speaking of now were not even brought up in the United States. Some of the best storytellers I encountered during my time as a tutor were Saudi students who spoke only some English.
The stories the Saudi students told were generally pretty short and simple, but that simplicity was rather revealing and refreshing compared to some of the other work that’d walk in the door. There was a frankness to the storytelling that was attractive to me, regardless of the writer’s intent.
Through the art of comparison, I usually preferred working with the Saudi students because they actually valued my input, and I’m a fairly frank writer myself. There was a relatability in their writing that I was willing to work with. And I enjoyed that work.
The days of tutoring that were dreadful usually coincided with a creative writing minor wanting to talk things through. You know, the kids who were at the school to write. Their pieces, as a generalization, were pretty long-winded and uninteresting. Were they perfectly structured and grammatically flawless? Of course they were. But in emphasizing the prose, they forgot the honesty that makes a story something people actually want to read.
The best, and by best I mean worst, part of this was that there would be other English and writing majors that were also tutors. You could always count on a few of them to complain about the Saudi students after they walked out of the room, for not having a perfect grasp of their second language. It was always the same pretentious clowns pointing out what was wrong with everyone else’s writing, not realizing that they’ve spent thousands of dollars to write James Joyce knock-offs. Who’s not so bright after all?
With some distance from all of this, there’s something tragic about how many of those Saudi students will likely never get any real encouragement to keep writing and getting better. At the same time, the “creatives” that would prowl around the tutoring center as both the tutor and tutee are going to be told that they’ve got what it takes. They’ll likely never leave that world of academic journals, the one with the echo chambers of good jobs and boring writing. These people are going to rise above because they have some perseverance and a thesaurus, but what stories might we be missing out on?
Sam Zavada is a copy editor with The Standard-Speaker in Hazleton. He previously served as the news clerk at The Standard-Speaker, working with the obituaries and the community and lifestyle pages. Sam’s work in print dates back to his time at King’s College, where he spent two years as the editor in chief of the school’s newspaper, The Crown. Earlier in his time with The Crown, he worked as a staff writer and the entertainment manager. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.