When I started off as a graduate student at the Columbia University, I remember submitting assignments to my professors with dread.
Whether it was an article that I’d spent weeks reporting on, or a script that I’d labored over for a weekly news broadcast, I pretty much knew what to expect when the assignment was returned:
Red ink. Lots of red ink.
Without fail, no matter how polished I thought the article or script was, the assignment would come back filled with red ink highlighting errors, missed opportunities, questions that needed answering, and now and then, instructions to start over.
At times, throwing in the towel sounded a whole lot more appealing than trying fix every one of these details. And mostly, I would react defensively and challenge my professors on almost every ounce of red ink they’d spilled onto the paper.
I remember complaining to friends — or anyone who would listen. I mean, what did my professors know anyway? (Spoken like a twenty-something who wasn’t wise enough to know how much he didn’t know.)
Not surprisingly, the faculty at Columbia’s J-School is top notch. Walking the halls are Pulitzer Prize winners, DuPont Award winners, Emmy winners, National Book Award winners and more. These preeminent leaders in their respective fields were the same men and women gracing my student writing and reporting with what I perceived as their detestable red ink.
What I needed wasn’t better professors — it was a shift in perspective.
The way I saw it, I had two options. I could spend my time at one of the most respected journalism schools in the world being defensive and closed-minded. Or, I could do what I was there to do — be open to learning. Of course, this required me to accept a painful truth. My writing and reporting at the time was far from great.
Eventually, I actually learned to love the red ink. Why? Because it meant that there was an opportunity to improve — to develop, to grow, to stretch myself — all under the guidance of a master.
With time (and lots of red ink), my writing improved. I learned more than I could have imagined during my year in J-School. But nothing has proven more valuable than learning how to be edited — or in other words, take constructive criticism.
These days, if I ever submit an article to an editor and there’s no red ink (or rather, comments and markups in Word), I’m not elated. I’m concerned.
I still haven’t forgotten what a professor told me one day when we were discussing the high cost of the tuition to attend Columbia. He gave me this valuable reminder: “You pay for the red ink.”
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