I’ve always said it: I just want to write. Some of my classmates in Creative Writing were born to become professors passing on their knowledge to the next generation of students, others were born to edit, to analyze other writers’ works, and to put together papers that become chapters of textbooks. I firmly believe that my niche in this world belongs to writing. And so I became a web content writer.
But the life of a web content writer is not as glamorous as it sounds. I can assure you, the pay is just as bad. On the other hand, I encounter situations my former classmates do not.
In my quest for a better paying job and in the misguided belief that I needed to step up my game, I accepted online editing work for a company based in the United Arab Emirates.
My new employer was the head of human resources of a drilling company. As to what the company was drilling, I could only venture guesses: oil? water? sewage? Sensitive documents never came my way, but what editing work that did kept me busy for days on end.
The first few days were okay. They were not great, but they were certainly not unpleasant. All communication with my boss was based solely on email exchanges and Internet chat. The bulk of the work consisted of editing office memos and technical documents.
The technical papers caused me much head scratching, ear pinching and nail biting. I probably spent a third of my time reading one document over and over, just trying to understand what it was about. Another third of that I spent poring over websites that had similar descriptions of whatever it was I was trying to read.
Only when I understood a quarter of the page could I go about improving sentences, moving paragraphs here and there, and making the documents more “readable to human beings.” Such was the first instruction given to me and I quote that verbatim.
The office memos, on the other hand, were the real eye-openers. They gave me a view into another culture. Up until the job came along, I had no contact with Emiratis whatsoever. World unity is fine and all, but the differences? Ah, the differences.
For instance: I should have realized that other countries have different ways of using the English language. I mean, you could put people from all countries in one room and ask them to converse in English, but that does not mean that they could understand each other easily. This became apparent the moment I started tackling inter-departmental memos.
By my way of thinking, office memos are different from letters, business or otherwise. So every time I saw greetings like “Welcome the morning to you,” or closings like “Sincerely Yours And One And Only” and (my favorite) “Good morning to the day, revered boss,” I simply removed these and reposted the memos in a concise and brisk manner that was still “readable to human beings”.
Next thing I knew, I got my first reprimand from my employer. He complained that I was doing “too much editing.” Again I am quoting that verbatim. To make him happy, I returned the greetings and closing lines but from time to time I still found some a bit too much. I would, er, accidentally on purpose remove those lines. For that I earned another irate reprimand: “Do you reminders always for this?”
As they say: you don’t bite the hand that feeds you — especially since that hand is in the UAE and can use a powerful drill to reduce you to smithereens. So I merely changed some of the greetings and closings so they were more bearable to read. After a while, I got a memo that said: “Ms. Lee, your English connection is much improve.”
Thank you. I do honestly believe that I earned that.
Very often though, I could not make heads or tails of what the inter-department office memos were trying to convey. I had to ask my exasperated employer to explain these to me in fine detail. I tried my best to grasp the concept by reading the entire memo, but there were just some things beyond my comprehension. To make matters worse, my employer had warned me of slashing my pay or firing me if I received too many complaints about my work.
Yes, I got another reprimand for asking too many questions as well.
But even after a lengthy chat exchange and a whole slew of emails with links or pictures detailing drill parts and other documents, a few still eluded my understanding. To illustrate my point, some examples:
A memo that contained very important instructions for the finance department stated: “In as much as there is a possibility of positions, let the refrain.” What?
Another memo giving out instructions to their new office site said: “You get to a place to turn corners and move into the opposite direction.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.
As a bonus for the workers with longer tenures, a memo stated: “Reward system: early employees are indoors, while late employees are shut the door.” That gave me the idea that I wanted to shut the door and bang my head on it.
Memos to their workers in the field had instructions like:
“When whistle sounds you will hear.” (The warning device whistles piercingly if anything goes wrong.)
“It has come to the attention, with mangers speaking… that people are complaints with biological clock.” (Managers verified that there was a discrepancy with the time in the pay sheet and the electronic Bundy clock at the work site. Workers complained about the docked points because the clock showed that they were an hour late. By the way, it had nothing to do with anyone’s biological clock.)
“Wear your name tags outside your clothes and inside.” (I learned later on that aside from wearing uniforms provided by the company, workers also had to wear protective overalls too. The instruction was to actually SEW the cloth name tags both on the uniform and the overalls.)
“When employess arrive several times over and over again, move to the side.” (Site workers were being instructed to clear a path so that the next few work teams could pass through quickly.)
“Report directly for direction.” (Workers were to report to the inspectors before continuing any kind of work.)
“Towards the end motivation revamps every time. Try this for inclusion.” (The head office was recommending to start the project over if there were no other alternatives to the failed work in one of the sites. The “Try this for inclusion” part was, according to my employer, a gentle way of telling the managers that they can still salvage the situation.)
“Moving the apparaturs would take 12 workers. 10 need to push forward while 10 needs to push sideways.” (This took several days to sort out. But in the end, my employer accepted this from me: It would take 10 to 12 workers to move the apparatus forward. At least 10 people would be needed to push it on to the marked spot. Once it is in place, the apparatus would need to be attached to the left side of the main machine.)
“Put large head into pants and pull out small head.” (My employer said that there was a typo here. The “pants” was supposed to be “pans.” The heads in this sentence were drill heads.)
But the one memo that really got me two reprimands in a row had this sentence: “In fulfillment of office requirements, please send your private parts to the office.”
Well, I thought that sending your private parts to the head office without you attached to them would be a very painful thing to do. And wouldn’t it be weird for the people there to find stacks and stacks of body pieces on their tables? So I changed “private parts” to “personal files,” because that was how I understood it.
My employer fired back: “Only private parts of papers is what we want not all of papers. The secret files must be sent.”
I dutifully changed “personal files” with “personal details,” with which my employer sent me a chat message that said: “Ms. Lee, please stand corrected… we really want private parts.”
After less than seven months as online editor, I decided to resign. My employer was amicable and even chatted with me on the last day. The last three lines of our chat exchange went:
Employer : your English is good, Ms. Lee but you are not editing good.
Me : I agree, sir.
Employer : I agree sir too. Goodbye and thank you for work with us.
Try that for inclusion.
See, I told you I’d rather just write.
Weng is an online content writer.