Directions? What directions?

These days I often find myself trying to take roughly 750,000 tiny plastic pieces and build them into a working nuclear reactor that my five-year-old can pretend to save from evildoers with his Batman action figure.  Okay, maybe I exaggerate.  There are probably only about 600,000 pieces per box.  Point is, I often find myself totally ignoring the folded piece of paper containing diagrams that take you step by step through the process.  For some reason, I always think that I can figure it out faster on my own.  Invariably, after two and a half hours and many muttered curses, my son has moved on to another game that doesn’t involve mom’s help and I am face to face with my nemesis: the instructions with the wonky diagrams and the incomprehensible text.

So, it was with wry bemusement that I came across Carol Saller’s fun blog post about this very thing.  What is most interesting to me about this phenomenon is that I spend 85% of my work life complaining bitterly about how our clients, prospective clients, editors, film/tv people, foreign agents, and the place that delivers our breakfast order never follow directions.  I rail when I get a “Dear Sir or Madam” query letter when it says very clearly on our website that we like things personalized; when I get back three signed copies of a contract and I clearly asked for four (4)—I always put the numeral in parenthesis for further emphasis; when I send a detailed edit memo asking for specific changes (technical ones, at that, not the subjective kind) and get the next draft of the proposal roughly 12 minutes later without the aforementioned changes….

Clearly, whether it’s Legos or query letters, we are hardwired to ignore directions (even when we ask for them).  I guess that’s a good thing if, like Einstein, we have the ability to reinvent the rules of the universe.  The rest of us should probably pay a little more attention.

How universal is this syndrome?  What are your most egregious examples of this wanton behavior?

3 Responses to Directions? What directions?

  1. Oh, I *PROMISE* that if you sign me I will do *EVERYTHING YOU SAY*.

    Promise, promise, promise!

    Except, of course, if I forget or don’t understand or simply think you’re wrong. And then I won’t exactly tell you that because, hey, you should know that already and you probably were just testing me to see if I had backbone.

    Because it’s all about the words that drop like dew from heaven through my fingers and onto the page, and how could you REALLY want me to change something so obviously inspired by the Muses themselves? I mean, it’s called a WORD processor because the WORDS are from the very heavens, the divine Logos.

    And of course some of the sentences are run on that’s the way people, you know, speak.

    (I’m just practicing for when I get the big break.)

    OK, enough of that.

    All I know is that the writers I hang out with are squirrelly and socially dysfunctional. I’m surprised they have the ability to actually send a query to the world, so I’m not surprised that they are unable to follow clear directions as to what they need to do to make their manuscript readable.

    And, of course, I haven’t really thought much before how this must drive agents and publishers nuts.

  2. Rowenna says:

    Let me guess, as soon as the nuclear reactor was finished, your son discovered that the box it came it was a way better foil to the bad guys?

    I work in student services at a university. I’d say the problem is both pervasive and universal. What amazes me most is how our best and brightest students are often the ones who manage to disregard directions the most often–do they think they’re above them? Have too much brilliant thought already crowding their brains? Are so socially awkward that human communication is beyond their grasp? I have no idea.

    I just know that I can send an email with very specific instructions…and get an email back with a half-dozen questions I’d already answered. And then still watch, befuddled, as they try to do whatever I said to do completely backwards.

    It’s made me much better at directions. Because I don’t want anyone to go as crazy as me.

  3. LupLun says:

    I’m reminded of that old bit of fun our second-grade teachers had with us. We get a pop quiz which consists of ten tasks. Task number one was “Read over this entire quiz before doing anything.”, Number two was “Take a blank piece of paper and write your name across the top.” The remainder were absurd things such as “Draw a star at the bottom of this page” and “Fold this paper in thirds and write a nursery rhyme on the back”. The last one was “Don’t follow directions 3-9, just write your name at the top of the page.” The point, of course, was to teach us not only to follow directions, but to make sure we had a full understanding of what needed doing before we started doing it.

    However, I remember when I got that quiz, I failed by overthinking it. I read through the entire list before doing anything, but when I got to the last task I read “3-9″ as “three minus nine”, which didn’t make sense to me because a second grader hasn’t yet learned about negative numbers. After worrying myself about it awhile, I decided the dash must have been an ampersand that had been blurred out in the Xeroxing. (This was back in the 80’s, when elementary-school teachers occasionally gave handwritten pop quizzes, because it was easier than wrestling with a typewriter.) So, I followed the directions, leaving out numbers three and nine, and failed the quiz and got a reproving message in red ink about reading the directions first. Since I had read the directions, I pouted and thought to myself “Teacher is so unfair!”

    Moral of the story: when directions are not followed, it can go two ways: inattentive direction-followers, or unclear direction-givers. I won’t name names, but there are some agencies out there that will list one set of query requirements on their website, and then the agent’s blog or the agency’s Publishers Marketplace listing or what have you will tell you to send a different query packet altogether.

    The way around this is to insert a line into the query letter saying basically “As per the directions on [WHERE YOU GOT THEM], I have enclosed [STUFF IN YOUR QUERY PACKET]. I have not enclosed [STUFF OTHER SOURCES TOLD YOU TO SEND], but can provide them upon request.” That at least makes you look professional, unfortunately you still get random rejections because you don’t know for sure which of the varied sets of guidelines the agency screener is using. If she’s had a long day and a huge pile of queries, I don’t doubt that she starts trashing them without even reading the query letter, just on the basis of not having what she expects in the query packet.

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