Dear Big Brother: Words matter, I get it


A little-known secret about me: my writing editor was a real hard-ass. He had a fancy job at the Bangor Daily News as a political reporter and he’s one of the only people I know who got paid to attend Harvard for a year. He knew the ins and outs of writing better than anyone I knew, so I stuck with him when it came to my own writing. But as much as he was known for his talent as a word-slinging reporter, he was known for not mincing his words.

I thought Chris Cousins cut-to-the-chase communication style may have had to do with the fact that he was my older brother, but I learned differently at his funeral in August. His boss Robert offered a hilarious account of Chris’s no-nonsense expectations for writing pieces with a fine example.

My brother was a humble guy, but he had no problem giving his boss hell when it came to what he considered to be lazy word choice in headlines. He was not shy about it, especially when it came to the word get. “Don’t ever, ever use the word get in one of my headlines,” Robert said he was known for saying repeatedly.

We all laughed, knowing how passionate my brother could be when he truly believed in something. I laughed, recalling editing sessions with him on Google Docs that may have stung my ego but served me well as a writer. For those who aren’t familiar, Google Docs has an editing program that allows more than one user to be in a document at the same time. I adored watching him in action. He would transform what I considered to be an “okay” piece into something worth publishing, in mere minutes.

These editing sessions with my brother were not for the faint of heart. My brother expected the best from me, as he knew I did from myself. In this situation, there was no time for leading questions such as, “is there a stronger word you can use here in this sentence?” He preferred the more direct approach, “change this, passive verbs piss me off!” I suppose you’d have to know him but that was the ultimate expression of love from Chris Cousins. Furthermore, the lessons resonated with me.

I would often send my brother writings with no title. I would tell him I just hadn’t thought of one yet but that wasn’t the case. I had long-since dubbed my brother “the headline king,” and nothing pleased me more than to get my writing piece back with a title suggestion from him. Never did the title he provided have the word “get” in it. Ever.

Yesterday I posted a blog. Clearly still delirious from narrowly surviving a two-week bout with the flu, I thought I had a snappy title with “Getting comfortable with the cringe-worthy.” (Hey, all of the teenagers are using the word “cringe” these days, right?)

Then it hit me. It hit me harder than any comment from my brother on Google docs had ever had. I had committed the Chris Cousins cardinal sin of headlines. Robert had the good grace to refrain from mentioning my lame, cringe-worthy title when he saw and re-posted my blog. Upon my horrifying realization that I had disappointed my brother and he was giving me the much-dreaded look of shame from above, I knew I had to act swiftly. (That disappointment is rough guys, even from the beyond)

This morning, I did something I have never done and changed the title of an already published blog. Now called Sounding off on the cringe-worthy, I can rest knowing I’ll never make that writing mistake again. Six months after his passing, we all have much to learn from Chris Cousins about life and writing. Most of us have a tendency to get lazy or impatient regarding the things we claim are important in our lives.

The truth my brother never seemed to forget is that every effort worth making at all, is worth taking your best shot at. This is true when it comes to pursuing our relationships, our passions and even those things we don’t want to do; but must. Every step we take, every word we choose to speak or write, matters more than we realize. Our every choice leaves an impression on those around us while we are living: and a legacy for those we leave behind. What choices are you making today that affect people’s lives and your legacy? Choose wisely, Big Brother is watching.



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