Writing Responsibly

Good evening, friends and family!  Let’s continue more subjects I’ve learned along my writer’s journey.  While the main target of this post is to other writers, I think you may find some application for these topics in other areas.  As always, please let me know what you think at the end about this topic, and what other topics you’d like me to expound on.

What do I mean about “writing responsibly?” A few things:

  • Don’t hurt people with your words
  • Be true
  • Own the impact of your words


Don’t Hurt People with your Words

Stories matter.  Stories are powerful creations that take on a life of their own and have the ability to change lives, for better or for worse.  Indigenous people will tell you how important stories are to their culture.  The truth is, stories are important in every culture.  The importance of some stories is more obvious than others.

If you’re going to represent a culture, be responsible and represent it accurately and respectfully.  Do your research and find sensitivity readers to make sure you’re getting the details right.  Cultural appropriate is a real thing, and it’s an evil thing.  If you misrepresent a culture in your story, whether you intend to or not, you could be misshaping history in ways that will have lasting consequences.  The stories of a people belong to those people.  Respect them so that you don’t destroy them.

Going further, be respectful of subcultures that are not your own.  If you’re not gay but you want to have a gay character in your story, do some research.  Be careful not to simply regurgitate stereotypes are tired cliches.  Not only can it be hurtful to the people you’re misrepresenting, stereotypes and cliches will just makes your story sad and pathetic.

Be aware of the impact your plots will have on people that have suffered similar trauma.  You can have rape and violence and war and dismemberment in your stories.  If it’s important to your book, go for it.  Just be mindful of your audience.  Don’t cheapen the traumatic or downplay it in your narrative.  Go there if your story calls for it, but don’t go there if you’re doing so as a cheap tactic.

If you want to have characters that are monsters, that’s one thing.  We can all get behind hating a good villain or monster.  But be aware of your narrative and what you’re saying with your themes and content.  Is your narrative approving of neo-Nazi ideals?  Is that really the message you want to put out in the world?  How about misogyny or racial prejudice or homophobia or…

The list goes on.  Yes, at times it may seem like we’re living in a culture that’s trying to police tone and content.  It’s important to remember the bottom line.  You are responsible for the story you create, and your words matter.  Stories last, and words hurt.


Be True

Some of this part may seem contradictory to the previous section, but when you start telling a story, be true to it.  Go forth boldly and say what needs to be said, even if it makes you uncomfortable.  Sometimes, especially if it makes you uncomfortable.

If in the course of your story your characters are going to a dark place, don’t shy away.  Get to the other side.  Maybe you’re dealing with a violent outburst, or a sexual awakening, or a crisis of faith, or a vengeful execution.  Go there.  See it through.  Write the story.

It’s possible that in staying true to the story, you might cross into an area of conflict where the subject matter might be hurtful to a group of people.  Be true to the story as you’re writing it, then judge it after the fact.  Put it in front of some sensitivity readers and listen to what they have to say.  Maybe you wrote something that shouldn’t see the light of day, but maybe you worked through some difficult subject matter and got to the other side with a message that people need to read.  You can’t know for sure until you get to the end.

As long as you stay true to the story and respectful of the cultures and people represented in your story, you can say just about anything.  More than likely, there’s an audience waiting to hear your perspective.  But if you don’t stay true to the story, your message will be tepid or poisonous.  Either way, it won’t be something you can defend or stand on because lies and cowardice make for a weak foundation.


Own the Impact of Your Words

You might get to the other side of a story and put something hurtful out into the world without knowing it.  Maybe you accidentally (or intentionally!) put out a story with a strong anti-vax message.  It’s out in the world now, and people are reading and responding to your work with appropriate hostility.

Own your words.  You wrote it.  Take responsibility.

If you were an anti-vaxer when you wrote some screed and have since reached a level of enlightenment, you are still the owner of your little monster.  You need to take responsibility.  If you disagree with what you wrote, put that message out there.  If you agree with what you wrote, stand up for yourself and defend yourself with eloquence and grace.  Either way, own your words.  They’re yours, and if they landed on your audience like a punch to the face, that’s on you.

If you are respectful of the people you’re writing about, and if you are staying true in your writing, you probably won’t have to worry about this so much.  But accidents happen.  Weird Al wrote a song called Word Crimes and later found out that his use of the word “spastic” is offensive.  How did he react?

He owned it.  He didn’t blow it out of proportion.  Maybe he could have done more, but at the very least, he acknowledged his mistake.


I’ll say one more thing about writing responsibly.  Michael Gallowglas and I recently had a discussion related to this topic.  In the discussion, I mentioned how in my job, I write software that has a non-zero chance of seriously injuring or killing a person.  As I have told many people, if I ever find out that a piece of code I wrote is responsible for killing someone, I’ll be done as a programmer.  I won’t be able to write another line of code.

In fiction, I don’t want to write something that ever leads to someone taking their own life.  It’s not as clear as software development.  If I wrote a line of code, getting a bit wrong which closed a breaker instead of opening it, that’s a direct line of responsibility that goes straight to me.  If on the other hand I wrote some story that sets off an emotional reaction in someone culminating in them taking their own life, that’s not as clear cut.

I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I ever wrote something that played even a small part in someone ending their own life.  It would impact me in ways I can’t imagine.  I might not be able to write fiction after that.  I’d probably have take some break.  I’d need some counseling.

To avoid that, I’ll take my own advice through this post and write responsibly.  I’ll stay true to the stories, but I’ll also be respectful of the people represented in the stories I’m crafting.  This is one of the reasons I took such interest in Writing the Other and related classes during the cruise.  It’s one more way I can try and write truth with respect and responsibility.