I get lots of emails. They generally break down like this: People telling me I'm brilliant and the reason print media is hanging on; people telling me I'm a moron and the reason print media is dying; people trying to get me to write about their book/cause/personal gripe; people asking me to read something they wrote about their book/cause/personal gripe; and people asking for help with their homework.
That's right. Not a week goes by that I don't hear from at least one high school student who's been assigned a paper about my writing and wants me to tell her what to say. They come from every region of the country, and from private schools and public schools alike. Often the student's paper is due the next day and she needs me to get back to her immediately. Frequently this desire is phrased without a great deal of punctuation or even the use of spell-check.
Here are excerpts — exactly as written — from just a few.
Hi, my name is ___ and i am the editor in chief of my school newspaper, and i am having so much trouble writing my column, i was wondering if you had any tips please help …
The teachers write in too.
I have a student, ____, who is writing a reasearch [sic] paper on your artiles She will be sending you three to five questions that she would very much appreciate you answering …
I know, I know. I should be flattered. I should be heartened that the youth of America are reading newspapers (albeit under duress) and, for that matter, that anyone's reading my column at all. But — and I hate to say this because it makes me sound about 1,000 years old — the sense of entitlement radiates from the screen. I have no doubt that these are lovely, goodhearted children with lovely, goodhearted parents. But with rare exceptions they seem to have missed the memo about doing their own work, not to mention the one about how to ask for a favor, particularly from adults they don't know.
I once told a student that I would answer her questions only over the phone, figuring she would be too lazy or scared to follow through (as I would have been). Instead, she called me right up (impressive!) and robotically read her questions over the phone and scribbled down my answers before murmuring a thanks and hanging up (decidedly less impressive!). Another time, exasperated after receiving five queries in as many days, I called a teacher who'd written me and asked how many of her students actually got interviews with the people they approached. She told me it was 67%. She also told me she made a point of teaching them how to write a polite letter and seemed surprised that this wasn't necessarily coming across.
This teacher seemed like a reasonable, well-meaning person, so I ended up scrapping my plan to chew her out for contributing to the laziness and presumptuousness of America's youth.
Still, I find myself consistently irked over this whole phenomenon, and not just because I feel guilty when I don't answer these emails and resentful when I do. It's because in a world of hyper-accessibility, writers are expected not only to write things but then engage with readers via email or comment boards or book festival Q&As about why they wrote it and what they meant. Nothing is ever considered enough. Readers don't want to simply read stuff and mull it over on their own; they want a personal dialog with the writer about what they were supposed to get out of it.
Students, especially, should be figuring out the how and why of a piece of writing based not on what the author explains to them in an Internet chat room but by tapping into the pure recesses of their own minds. That kind of approach is the highest compliment a reader can give a writer. It's also, by definition, the one we just can't offer any help on.
So kids, don't be offended when I don't answer you. Consider yourselves lucky instead.