Friday, 1 April 2011

Biting Your Lip

There's been a recurring discussion over the last couple of months about what writers should and shouldn't say online. Agent Jennifer Laughran kicked off the subject with her post in January, advising writers to keep quiet regarding submissions and their opinions of the business generally. This week, we've seen an ugly incident in which a self-published author turned on a website for printing a mildly negative review and became instantly notorious. The ability to bite your lip, or to walk away from a fight, has never been so important.

Social media, instant messaging - these technologies encourage a rapid response to stimulus, a "fire and forget" mentality that can be seen very clearly in Facebook's recent decision to remove the confirmation button from comments, which are now posted as soon as you press return. The thinking behind this is presumably to make online "chat" as close to natural conversation as possible. There's one big problem with this – once you say something online, it can be very difficult to take it back. Facebook allows you to delete posts and comments, as does Twitter, but it only needs one person to repost or retweet your words for you lose control of the process.

Despite the quick-fire environment, it should be easier to walk away from a fight online. After all, it isn't as if we have someone physically threatening us or bellowing in our face. We always have the option to switch off our laptops and go jump on a few cardboard boxes. But something about being insulted by someone we can't see - who doesn't even know us – is particularly maddening. And sometimes it seems as if the internet is entirely composed of idiots with nothing better to do than wind you up. Robert Wilensky's quote has never been more pertinent: "We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true."

Dealing with people who get under your skin is a problem that someone in the workplace has to cope with on a daily basis. Everyone, no matter how diplomatic, has their pressure points and some people are highly skilled at exploiting that. So I think that having a day job and learning to cope with this aggravation is a very positive thing for a writer. Offices, publishers and the blogosphere are very alike in terms of the politics and petty jealousies that seethe and fester within them. I was chatting with an editor recently who was surprised that so many writers are unaware of what goes on behind closed doors at a publisher's office. As students of human nature, why don't we realise that the work environment of a publisher is as politically charged as any other?

The life of a writer has many frustrations – creative, financial, political. Nurture your personal support structures so you don't keep collecting resentment until you burst in a murderous rage. And when someone pushes your buttons online, don't bitch them out - take a breath, bite your lip, send a one-to-one email to a trusted friend. As a writer for young people, you have the responsibility to be a wiser, better, more mature person than your reader. That might not be easy – or very rewarding in the short term – but it doesn't make it any less necessary.



  1. I especially like your comment about responsibility, Nick.
    Well said.

  2. So true, Nick; a bit of self-editing never goes amiss. Writers should be used to editing their text, so it should be easier for us than for those who take a more casual attitude to the written word!

    Now... what edits do I need to make to my comment before I post....

  3. timely advice - have you considered a career as a columnist rather than a children's book writer? you're rather good at this.

  4. "As a writer for young people, you have the responsibility to be a wiser, better, more mature person than your reader."

    I'm doooomed.

  5. Maybe I should tweak the wording to say "you have the responsibility to appear to be a wiser, better, etc."

  6. One of my sisters has a really useful technique that she uses in moments of rage. She composes an email blasting it all out, no holds barred, and then she sends it to herself. She waits a day to read it. And then, she edits everything that she sees clearly would cause offence if she received such an email. It allows her to vent, hurts no one else, and gives her distance between the inciting event and the response. Very clever, I think!