This is a guest post by Leon Scott Baxter.Baxter, “America’s Romance Guru” is the author of The Finance of Romance: Investing in Your Relationship Portfolio, Out of the Doghouse: A Man’s Secret Survival Guide to Romance and A Labor with Love. He’s spoken to over 20,000 people about love and relationships. His website, CouplesCommittedToLove.com, allows visitors to access his book, articles, reports, seminars and phone coaching.
Leon Scott Baxter lives in Southern California with his college sweetheart, Mary””who he has been married to since 1992″”his two beautiful daughters, Madison and Maya, and his Boxer/Terrier mix, Lucy. He enjoys playing basketball, skimboarding, and watching reruns of the hit TV series The A-Team.
It was 1987. I was a senior in Mrs. Borelli’s honors English class at San Lorenzo Valley High School. Mrs. Borelli liked my style, thought I had talent, but warned me to know when to use humor and when not. I had a tendency to make her writing assignments my own, by taking the topic and turning it on its ear, like “write a biography on an influential American.” I wrote a piece on my best friend, who happened to be and American as well as the class salutatorian and who others at school admired. I called the piece “Jeff O’Leary: The Man, the Myth, the All-Around Good Guy.”
I made a mockery of the assignment, quoting myself as the topic’s best friend, writing about his ground-breaking theorems (“hippo + hippo = butterfly” which he discovered at lunch one afternoon when he found two hippo animal cookies connected back-to-back making what appeared to be a butterfly) and taking quotes out of context, including Mrs. Borelli’s own words, to make my best friend appear more important than he truly was, just for a laugh.
I used the five paragraph structure Mrs. B had taught us, but, although structurally sound, Mrs. Borelli gave me a “B” and warned me to think of who my audience was for a better response.
In the spring I learned that I’d been accepted to the University of California. I’d have to take a writing exam so the university could place me in the proper English class. I don’t recall the topic of the writing test but I do remember thinking I wanted this essay to get the attention of the readers. They needed to know they had a talented word-smith entering their institution.
So, in the first paragraph I stated my topic and my three supporting ideas. In the next three paragraphs I expanded each of those topics. But, it was that final paragraph I thought I’d have some fun. Again, I wish I could recall the writing prompt, but I proceeded to tell the reader that the first four paragraphs were a bunch of hooey, and if anyone followed that line of reasoning they lacked a couple of screws in the attic, and I continued to refute each supporting idea and finished stating the exact opposite of what I had initially stated. Content with my skills as a writer, I returned home to await my results.
A few weeks later I learned that I’d been placed in English 101, or, as the student body referred to it, “Bonehead English,” basically remedial English for relatively intelligent people. After five weeks in the class reviewing sentence structure, comprehension of popular American literature, and how to write a five-paragraph essay, the professor finally pulled me aside and asked me why I had wound up in her class. Apparently I didn’t fit the MO of the traditional English 101 student.
With my eyes looking at the floor, I told her about my attempt to wow the university readers, and she informed me that there was a time and a place to write in that style, but it wasn’t on a college entrance exam. She told me, as Mrs. B had, that good writers knew their audience, understood what they expected, and wrote in a voice that they would appreciate.
At the end of the semester, all the Bonehead English students were forced to take another writing exam if they wanted to stay at the university. My professor warned me to give the readers what they expected. Nothing more.
On the day of the writing exam, we were all surprised to see that we’d been given the exact same writing prompt (which I still can’t recall) we’d not passed originally. So, I proceeded to write virtually the same paper I had initially written, save for paragraph number five, which restated my topic and supporting ideas and finally wrapped up all the pieces with a concluding statement in a nice neat package topped with a bow.
I passed. But, more importantly, I had been humbled. More important than my skill as a writer is my understanding of my audience and delivery to touch them. I’ve taken that lesson with me these past 25 years as a writer, but just wish I would have listened when I thought I was too good to listen.