I once had an editor who didn’t like me very much. It wasn’t entirely his fault. He hadn’t hired me (his own boss had made the choice) and he resented my being thrust into his orbit.
But one day he did something especially hard-hearted. He gave me an assignment that required me to call 30 arts organizations in the city, ask them how much money they owed and calculate the grand total of their debt. Then I had to write a 1,000 word story about it. By the end of the day.
I started working the phone immediately and feverishly. First, I had to ID the people to interview. I’d never even spoken to many of them before. But by 6 pm, I’d reached everyone (not easy) and sweet-talked them into giving me the data (harder still.) I took 30 minutes to grab a bite of dinner then started working on the story.
By about 9:30 pm, after much furious work, I had most of a story. I remember leaning back in my chair to admire my efforts, when BOOM, my computer screen flashed with a blaze of white light and then slowly died to black.
I looked in stunned disbelief. I had NEVER seen such a thing happen before. There was no smoke but I ran to find a tech. He unplugged my computer, turned it on again then shrugged. It was working again. But my story, well, it was completely and utterly gone because I’d never hit “save.”
I felt sick and then panicked. I’d done all the math on my calculator and hadn’t even written anything down — I’d just typed it directly onto the screen. Then I felt grim. I knew I was going to have to rewrite the whole damn thing. (I did it in about an hour.) I stumbled home in a daze.
Such an unmitigated disaster has never occurred again — but some time ago I came close. I’d written my regular blog post on Thursday and by Friday it had disappeared. I’m rigorous about how I title and store my stories but it wasn’t where I knew I’d put it. A spotlight search (I’m on a Mac) on the filename, which I knew, didn’t uncover it, either. Yup, I was in trouble.
I waited until Monday before starting to rewrite and then idly noticed an icon instructing me to install my computer updates and restart. As is my habit, I decided to empty my electronic trash first and opened it. And there, believe it or not, sat my story. Halleluiah!
Having survived the loss of a story twice, I feel qualified to offer the following advice if you ever lose some copy:
1) Don’t spend too much time getting mad at yourself or others. As the saying goes: Anger is one letter short of danger. If you’ve lost something, you really don’t have much time to waste.
2) Get someone else to help you look. Other people have different worldviews. If you’ve lost something, they’ll likely look in different places than you, even on your hard-drive. (I’ve written before about how my husband helped me find my purse). Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
3) If your story is truly lost, start rewriting AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Once you’ve written something, it’s as if there’s a tape recorder running in your own head. You will be able to recall much of the article if you do your rewriting FAST. (That’s why I was so foolish to wait until Monday to rewrite my last column. I should have done it the moment I understood it was lost.)
4) Allow adequate time in your writing schedule to recover from a crisis like this. I never write my Tuesday blog post early Tuesday morning. In fact, even Monday is way too late for me. Instead, I ponder topics every Wednesday and mindmap and write a first draft on Thursdays. I do an initial edit on Fridays and a final edit and posting on Mondays. I set up similar in-advance schedules for all my client work, too.
5) Learn whatever lessons you can from the loss. Bad incidents teach. After the arts debt story fiasco, I learned to “save” my work more frequently. Following the lost Power Writing, I learned to check the trash first whenever a story goes missing. As you confront your own inevitable errors remember the maxim: “The only real mistake is the one from which you learn nothing.”
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