Blogger: Wendy Lawton
In World War II GIs were given four succinct words of advice about what not to say when writing home, carrying on a conversation, or if captured: loose lips sink ships. I’d like to suggest that loose lips can also be the kiss of death to a writer’s career.
We live in an instant communication age. We email, we blog, we Facebook, we Twitter, we do webcasts and we create You Tube videos. There’s no end to the ways we can get ourselves into trouble with a keystroke or two. My mother used to caution, “Don’t write anything in a letter you’d be embarrassed to see posted on a bulletin board.” In this electronic age, I’d have to say the same about any electronic communication: Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to see re-tweeted, forwarded, sent to other writers, to your editor, to your agent, to your publishing house or even to your mother.
I could tell stories. . . in fact, I will.
Just last week, I spoke to an editor about one of my clients whose work he’s planning to take to committee. He asked me if the client’s views track with the publisher’s views. I’d never been asked that before and I must have hesitated because he went on to explain that he was asking because they had recently made an offer to an author. During the process, someone in their house happened upon a blog post in which that author was sharply critical of the publishing house and their mission. The board decided to withdraw the offer. That opinionated blog turned out to be the kiss of death to that particular partnership.
Did you know that many human resources departments routinely check social networking sites, websites and follow a potential employee’s Twitter stream before making a job offer? Don’t assume publishing committees don’t also do equally thorough due diligence on a potential author. Everything we say in these public forums can tip the scales.
I cringe when I see authors twittering negative things about their works-in-progress. Yes, we writers understand the writing process and know that it’s normal to hate the book halfway through but your readers don’t know that. What about the writer who blogged about being so glad a certain book was finished? He said it was a mess but he was so sick of it, he just needed to let it go so he could begin work on the new idea he was passionate about. Hello? How does he think his readers will react to that news? What if his editor or someone from the publishing house reads the blog? Kiss of death.
Too many novelists have been wounded by the barrage of public criticism of their books and writing by wannabe writers and first-time novelists. We’ve all heard new writers disparage the bestsellers. “I have no idea why she sells so many books. Her stories are so simplistic.” Or “If I see one more prairie romance. . .” How about snide comments about Amish novels or whatever genre that particular writer doesn’t write? The truth is that writing preferences are highly subjective. Don’t assume that your criticism will be lost in the blogosphere. Many writers set google alerts. They track every word written about them. Most experienced writers try to take these criticisms lightly, but it hurts nonetheless. One writer recently chose several well-known writers as bad examples of the craft and posted them on his blog. Building ourselves up by tearing others down is a dangerous practice. This is a small community.
It’s not just written communication that can be a problem. Any kind of talk can get around. When I’m considering a potential client one of the things I prize is discretion– the ability to always be appropriate. Nothing is more important when trying to build a career, no matter what industry. When I was leading a workshop at the Career Track at Mount Hermon one year, someone joked about how many times I used the word “winsome” when talking about how writers need to approach problems. Okay, I admit I overused the word, but it is such an advantage to be pleasing and engaging in an age when snide and snarky are too often the default. Winsome will certainly set you apart. Remember what your own mama said? “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
So my question for you is how do we balance literary criticism with discretion? How do we speak the truth in our communication while guarding our tongues? Is my advice too old-fashioned in this information age? I’m ready to listen.
Great post! We must watch our tongue, all the time. Remember WWJD? Yeah, well, even though it’s not as popular as it once was, I try and function by it still–just a little modified for writing.
Basically I ask myself, “Would Jesus be okay with what I’m writing? Or saying?”
So, no…your advice is not too old-fashioned!
Have a great day.
Excellent reminder. It’s so easy to type something, see the words on the screen, and click a button to send them on their way. But are they gone forever? Ask the government officials, the business executives, all the people whose emails have come back to haunt them. There’s no reason to assume that writers are exempt from this. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, even comments (like this one) should be written with the thought in mind that they’re going into the public domain. Thanks for the post.
Kay Dew Shostak
Great points, Wendy. I’ve worked as a youth minister and trying to convince the kids to police what they write for the world to see is hard. Even harder is getting the parents to take this seriously. We all want a pass for speaking our minds (especially for our children who are “just children”).
While what we say in a moment lives in that particular moment, what we write lives on the web, forever in the present tense.
I had not considered this in relation to my writing career – thanks for the heads up.
Awesome post, Wendy, and a great reminder. Thanks.
I don’t think your advice is too old-fashioned at all. I think in this age and time, sometimes it’s almost too easy to say whatever happens to be on our mind at the time, and it comes out a bit too unguarded.
When it comes to ourselves criticizing others, I think it should be done in a more professional way. If you didn’t particularly enjoy a book, maybe try mentioning something you DID enjoy, then say what you didn’t like. Avoid name calling and posting what are closer to tantrums than just opinions. If you’re uncertain how something sounds, save it for a day and come back when you’re in a different mood and see if it’s still something you want to post. I’ve done this with e-mails before when I was rather upset at someone. I would type out a long e-mail, then save it instead of sending it, then return when I was in a better mood to find out I didn’t feel the same and was glad I never hit send.
It’s great stuff to think about Wendy. Overall, my opinion is to always take the time to stop and really think through whatever we say or post, and even when things can get around so fast, be willing to slow down. As quick as things get into the information stream, remember that’s as fast as a wildfire can burn.
Wendy said: “how do we balance literary criticism with discretion? How do we speak the truth in our communication while guarding our tongues? Is my advice too old-fashioned in this information age?”
Absolutely not “old-fashioned,” Wendy! This is an important post, both for new writers and experienced ones. As for literary criticism/discretion, it’s almost always best to leave the criticism to editors, agents and others in a better position than we to make these judgments. If your editor or agent asks for a confidential opinion, that’s one thing–hopefully, you can trust that it *will* be confidential. But authors randomly criticizing other authors or their work, or a particular genre–or sometimes even an entire industry, all of which most of us have likely seen ad nauseam–is unprofessional and often comes back to bite the critic in some devastating ways.
There really is a great deal of wisdom in the old “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing.”
Your post resonated with me today for a variety of reasons. Thank you for the timely reminder. IMO, your advice is all the more important in the information age. E-mail and social media are wonderful tools, but they can both help and hinder communication. Sometimes we are too eager to press the send button. These formats also lend themselves to sounding very harsh. There is no body language, tone of voice or twinkle in the eye to soften the words.
Speaking the truth doesn’t preclude kindness and respect. You can point out problems in someone’s writing in an instructive/constructive way. We can even agree to disagree in a respectful manner. A lot of it boils down to the golden rule. If I were in their shoes, would I want the issue handled in this way?
Thank you again for your wisdom.
Teri D. Smith
I think your “old fashioned” advice is spot on. A very “old fashioned” book agrees with you and says man can tame the wild animals but not his own tongue.
Our young people on facebook would do well to heed your advice.
As to literary criticism, perhaps it needs to be done by those whose positions give weight to their opinions. If someone hires you to give your literary opinion, then go ahead. But even there, snarkiness will always refect on the person.
Guess our mamas were right after all.
Right on, Wendy! One morning while perusing facebook posts, I found a scathing update from an author whose book I acquired for my former house. In it, this gentleman slammed the publisher for not picking up a project he proposed for the same series as the book we partnered on. Several paragraphs of bile-spewing, bridge-burning ugliness spilled into the public arena. “Anyone should be happy to have this book, if they know what’s good for them.”
I sent him a note, suggesting he may want to re-think the venue for venting his frustration. He did. We had a nice long talk. His desperation created the loose cannon barrage, and he hadn’t walked through the appropriate doors or massaged the right relationships with his publisher. He thought they “owed” him an ear. What they got was an ear full.
Turns out the main reason for the rejection lay in the author’s hands. The publisher had read other loose-cannon remarks he put on public display expressing some loud opinions contrary to the mission of the publisher.
Authors, a couple of things here: build open relationships with points of contact within your publisher. You’re in a partnership. If you develop issues, engage in gracious conversation within that circle. And if you find yourself on the edge, find a confidante. Don’t splatter your guts across a screen.
It’s a tricky balance, isn’t it? I learned the email lesson the hard way some years back. Oy! No, I’m not going to tell the story, but it wasn’t writing related.
Now, when I talk about specific books online, I ask myself if I could sit beside the author at a convention and not feel ashamed. I never did get personal in my reviews, and I never lambasted debuts, so I don’t think I misstepped too badly. I wonder if it’s better that writers avoid reviewing altogether, except for the occasional shout-out of a particularly good book. But my dilemma is that I wanted to pull more readers to my blog. How do you do that without talking about books? And if you only say good things all the time, you quickly lose credibility.
Discretion: that’s a great word!
In this age of opinion, easily accessed information, and international communication, it’s often lost in the race to be noticed. Thank you so much for this reminder to be above reproach, even if we think no one is listening!
I taught a college course this past term about the media and media literacy, and one of the subjects I covered was directly related to your public face online.
My students were shocked that potential employers will “google” them, or look them up on myspace, facebook, twitter, blogs, etc. to see what they do in their spare time, what they’re saying about others, and what kind of posts and pictures they put up.
The fact that agents/publishers do the same thing does not surprise me at all. Especially considering writers are doing the same thing by checking out agents/publishers in the exact same way. ^_^
Just wanted to take a moment and let you know how much I enjoy your blogs.
Have a wonderful day in Carmel . . . I love it there. I love all of the quaint little shops and eating places.
This is a good question. I do try to be careful of what I say, and how I say it, something I learned from my mother. The Internet sometimes feels like a filter, giving a false security, kind of like the emperor with no clothes.
At the same time, the beauty of social networking is the ability to make connections with people all across the world. How sad to think that all of those connections may be censored and buttoned up because they might be used by a future employer, publisher, agent, etc.? Should we perceive everyone’s electronic face as simply a facade?
I get that employers and others scour the Internet for information, just as average Joes do, but I’ve always been a person who reserves judgment until I’ve had a chance to meet and interact with a person for myself. Not always easy, because I certainly form opinions based on media intel, but I really do try.
Very thoughtful post, Wendy. My brother who is a missionary/speaker/pastor/teacher reads my blog posts and contacts me if he thinks something might be misinterpreted, etc. I try to view all of my writing – even blogging and facebooking – as a ministry to bless and encourage, which keeps me grounded. This is a wonderful reminder of the impact our words have and their power to encourage or destroy. Scripture sure has a lot to say about that. I needed the reminder this morning. Thank you for your thoughts here.
Great points Wendy. I’ve just been pondering another side to this.
I’m finding my own views of some writers changed by their FB/Twitter posts. I can think a couple examples of where their published writing is positive/uplifting/humorous, but most often their tweets and such are negative/whiny/critical. It makes their work seem ingenuous somehow. Just because we can say something doesn’t always mean we should.
I have the same questions as Janet above – about writing reviews. I’ve written many, and not always glowing, although I always try to be fair, kind and explain the reasons for my criticism. I am hyperconscious of the fact my words have potential to come back and bite me. In fact in one case, I refrained from posting a review on Blogcritics (which has a large readership) of a fiction I received from one of the Christian publishing houses to review, because I couldn’t honestly endorse it. I did post the review on my blog, because that was part of my agreement with the publishing house.
How do you have any credibility as a reviewer if everything you write is positive? Of course if you later turn around and write a book yourself, you should expect the same honest treatment. (Hopefully there won’t be petty tit-for-tat involved, though. I suppose that will depend partly on how you have presented yourself over time).
What a great reminder, Wendy! Ultimately we need to remember Who sees everything we write! If we want to please Him with our words, then we’ll work hard to put a guard over our mouths and keyboards, while speaking the truth in love.
It’s about love.
Especially for those of us in the Christian publishing world. Our testimony is more important than our celebrity.
How to Keep Your Inner Mess
From Trashing Your Outer World
SUCH an excellent topic! Is there anyone who doesn’t need a reminder about this? We all do. It just sounds so clever or funny or intelligent at times to make a comment, but for what purpose?
I ask myself, Would I say this TO the person? it’s a tough call.
Great topic, Wendy! I’m so glad I stumbled upon this site.
Oh, wow. I am SO guilty of this lately. Yikes. I’ve been whining on Twitter about rewriting. I thought of it more as “sharing my heart,” but maybe that isn’t the place to do that. I also made a comment on my blog about Amish Romances. I went on the give the book a positive review. I sure don’t like thinking of myself as a bad example. Thanks for the heads up. There’s a fine balance between being real and being wise.
Great advice, Wendy. I always cringe when I read things like, “I write (insert genre here) because I have no patience for (insert another genre).” Often times, in trying to explain their own style, a writer inadvertently tears down someone else’s. Remember the old adage, “Think before you speak”? Today, we might amend that to “Think before you hit the Send key.”
I review a lot of books on my blog, and I determined early on to be a recommendation reviewer. That doesn’t mean I fawn over every book I read, but if I can’t find something nice to say, then I won’t review it at all. This business is hard enough without tearing each other down!
Robin of My Two Blessings
Great post and your thinking isn’t old fashioned at all. My husband and I have recently been discussing this with some young men he mentors. They don’t give it a second thought that someone in the business world will read their blogs or be affected by what they say on the internet. Then they are surprised by the reaction of a future employer or business associate. “what are they doing reading my blog?” Well…
I make it a point never to talk about our business customers or rant about their behavior on my blog. I really don’t want something I say coming back to bite me in the behind later. Everyone needs to learn that what they say in public influences those around them. Blogs represent us and create an instant, but lasting impression. What’s the old adage: “Loose lips sink ships.”
Robin of My Two Blessings
Whoops: Hit enter too quickly without editing. You are so right about the old adage “loose lips sink ships” Important lesson to learn.
Super reminders and warnings, Wendy. A few times in my writing career I’ve sent an email to a publisher too soon, meaning I hadn’t set it aside and pondered it and read it through just one more time. Nothing horrific was said but I was uncomfortable by what I’d written. The trouble with emails and blogs is that we can’t hear “tone of voice”. Think of how many tones of voice can be used in the phrase “no way!” I’m wiser now. I am more wary of my own instinctive response to things, and I let important emails sit awhile before sending.
Excellent post and so true!
A great reminder in all walks of life. There are occasions for sharing opinions that are less than flattering, but they are uncommon. And of course it is easier to be grace-filled and winsome when you engage facts alone, but with effort and prayer, even criticism can be stingless.
Thanks Wendy, I think your advice is right on. As a blogging, wanna-be writer, I especially appreciated your point about complaining about your project online. You’re right. That’s not exactly a way to attract eventual readership! I am going to take your wisdom to heart and hopefully avoid these mistakes.
A J Hawke
Great post. A timely reminder of
common sense behavior.
Wendy, this is great advice for all of us to take to heart. It applies not only in the writing/publishing world, but in other areas as well. I cringe when I hear authors criticizing other author and their books. Don’t they realize how small that makes them look? I often post positive reviews of books I feel are well written. If I don’t care for a book, I don’t review it or mention it to others. Common courtesy is never out of style. Thanks for the reminder.
Brian T. Carroll
One of my favorite pastors liked to remind us that when a cup gets bumped, what spills out is what the cup was full of to begin with. Gentleness should be the outgrowth of understanding that we who have been forgiven much must also forgive those who have wounded us but a little. That principle should eliminate 90% of what we are talking about. The other 10%, say an honest criticism of a book’s faults, can still be offered with gentleness. I’m afraid my weakness is for a rapid letter-to-the-editor over some public policy issue. I have to remember that even misguided senators have human feelings and defendable motives.
I am so torn on this issue. I am pretty doggoned opinionated. And I like reading people who are opinionated. I like passion in a speaker even when I disagree with the speaker. If you have no passion for your topic, how can you stir up any passion in your reader?
I also think authors who put their work out for public consumption should expect for it to be dissected and dissed as well as fawned over. I don’t agree that if I have nothing nice to say I shouldn’t say anything at all. I think there is value in saying things about books that are poorly written or full of bad ideology. My words might not feel nice to the author, but the author is not my intended audience. I’m trying to be nice to my reader.
We can’t please all the people all the time. And we don’t have to, do we? When I make a pro-life statement half the room hates me and half the room loves me. Same goes for when I say Twilight was pretty boring and the characters were not very bright. Some agree, some don’t. In the end you collect readers who agree with you and like to hear your strong opinions.
I know that when I dis an author I’m offending not only him but his agent and editor, too. (Especially when I say, “Where was the editor? How did this slip by?”) And yet, I do it anyway. I don’t think I can have any credibility if I only express happy thoughts.
I love the word winsome and use it a lot. I think the gospel is to be winsomely presented. But winsome doesn’t mean without opinion. I think some career-minded writers don’t get that. They seem phony and inconsequential. They agree with everyone. Well, they never offend anyone then, but…who cares? Who cares about their lukewarm opinions? Who is going to buy their books?
And as much as like winsome, I have to admit, I like snarky, too. I think there is a time and a place for it. When someone is selling a shoddy product, then snark may be OK. I can be pretty snarky about Benny Hinn and Robert Tilton. And special editions of The Purpose Driven Life for goth girls and for dog owners and for LGMs seem like fair game, too.
Okay, I’m loving this discussion.
When I talked about wounding our colleagues, I didn’t mean that a professional reviewer should ever hold back. The critical review process is an honored tradition. My own books have been reviewed by PW and other review vehicles and I love the discipline of honest critique.
I’m talking about the informal sniping that seems so prevalent these days. Everyone with a blog or a Twitter account is a reviewer and sometimes the reviews are little more than vehicles to poke fun at [insert genre here]. And sometimes the comments are so personal they make readers cringe. Most of the time the opinions read like thinly veiled attempts to make the reviewer look smarter and more discerning than those cretins who write for the unwashed masses.
I was going to say that a writer needs to earn the right to critically review. That if you are on your first or second book and you start opining on writers who’ve been telling their stories for years you are not only going to offend your colleague but you are going to offend their readership– readers who will now never become your readers.
But I’m not going to say you even necessarily earn that right with years under your belt. You still do it at your peril. What did you think about Stephen King publicly denigrating Stephanie Meyer? Do you think Meyer’s legions of young fans will ever make the jump to King now?
Remember, I was talking about career killers, not about the tradition of critical review. It’s risky. And when you end up attending a function or a conference with one of the writers you shredded you may regret the loss of potential relationship.
I’m just saying. . .
Jill Eileen Smith
Wonderful post, Wendy! And some great advice. I obsessively reread my emails, blog posts, (blog comments), even those 140 Twitter characters, and I still wonder how the words come across. How hard it can be to be gracious to all when, as Nancy pointed out, tone cannot be discerned in such venues. Where I might be joking, a reader might not hear joking. Where I might want to convey empathy, my attached smiling picture doesn’t show much empathy at all.
As far as professional reviews are concerned, I think there is a place for them and appreciate constructive comments. I’ve learned a thing or two to watch for in my future books from such reviews. But sometimes reviewers do say things that just seem unkind and you wonder if they realize that a real person sits behind the computer and writes the books they are slamming.
My mother used to tell me to count to ten before reacting. Probably wise to count even higher before posting reactionary words on the world wide web.
I sent your post, Wendy, to my son. I don’t think the younger generation gets it. They think they can say whatever on social websites or blogs and it won’t come back to ‘haunt’ them. Thanks for taking a professional position on this and reminding all of us of the importance of the Thumper credo–if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all (from the movie Bambi).
I don’t like to point out the negatives in a book unless it’s bad theology or gives a bad impression of Christianity without any redeeming virtues. So much of the negative is so subjective. I’d hate to hurt a writer’s numbers because of my own personal opinion. A reader might not even see it my way at all.
Very good points about being courteous in black and white. “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Thanks so much for the reminder.
A great reminder, Wendy.
It’s like the old saying about never burning your bridges. I’d add to that saying: careful you don’t destroy bridges before they’re built. We easily forget that the world is much, much smaller now and information is much more accessible–to everyone. Words cannot be deleted.
Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Wendy.
For more on social networking blunders read: http://www.twitip.com/twitterfired-the-top-10-tweets-to-get-you-fired/
Great advice, Wendy!
Whenever I post anything on-line, I reflect on how it would be read by: my husband, children, mom, pastor, editor, agent, boss, and my unbelieving friends. Hmmm. Do I really need to post that? Praise the Lord for the delete key!
Sharon K. Souza
Excellent advice, Wendy. Our words can build up or tear down; they can promote good things or get us in trouble, as James 3:3-6 reminds us. What a hard lesson learned by the author whose contract was rescinded. (There’s a lot to be said for being winsome.)
D. D. Tannenbaum
First and foremost, when commenting on a story or any type, comment on the story itself, not the writer. Never, ever make comments about the writer’s skill or character. Focus on the story and only the story. Second, comment on a story the way you would like to have your story commented on. “Do unto others…” is a great creed to follow in reading and writing!
Wonderful article! Maybe following the Bible would be a good thing to do when blogging or facebooking? Always stay upbeat and if you criticize, do it with brotherly love.
When I had to critique a book on Amazon, I tried to be gentle. It was a little hard to get into said book, but by the middle of the book, it became a page-turner. I pointed out two items of concern. The swear words were too frequent and a scene was somehow lost and didn’t resolve itself. However, I did point out it was pretty good. I’m hoping I wasn’t harsh.
I understand that you’re talking about building a career, Wendy. And I agree with you.
I’ve been struggling with this personally, though, wondering how far to take it.
There are a lot of Christian authors publishing children’s books, but when you go to their sites they don’t say anything about being Christian. You wouldn’t know it from their books or websites. They have gone into the closet.
But the gay authors are out and proud. And they have no more tolerance for those who don’t affirm them than Perez Hilton has.
It’s an interesting turn of events.
Crystal Laine Miller
Here’s another aspect to this “loose lips” topic–when you’ve entered a writing contest and then publicly criticize and belittle the judges over the scoring. When you call the judges names and complain bitterly about the judging–even if there are legitimate complaints–it causes ripples. Just choose not to do it.
If you have issues, go directly to the contact person for the contest, don’t post it on writer lists or blogs.You never know who is listening or where that judge’s influence lies.
This is such excellent advice, Wendy.
I sent notices to a wide range of people about my blog. I included family, my pastor, my co-workers, friends and people I know well from committees.
What does that mean for me? It means I actively write to appeal to a large group of people while trying hard not to offend any of them. I know that at times, someone can take offence inadvertantly, however, it was a self imposed act that makes me present myself to a higher standard.
I try to be professional at all times, knowing that what I say does impact someone-somewhere on a very personal level. I fully understand that what I say and how I say it impacts my desire to become a successful author and a compassionate human being.
I don’t think you should have one without the other.
Thanks for the thought provoking post.
Ann H. Gabhart
Great advice, Wendy. Ah, to be an encourager in all that I do, say or write – that’s a prize to reach for.
Julie Surface Johnson
Regardless of how “modern” the world has become, it’s never old-fashioned or out-of-style to protect the feelings of others. Last I looked, people have the same sensibilities they always have.
When it’s necessary to critique a work or behavior, speaking the truth in love is scripturally mandated and socially acceptable. Give me a winsome response anyday!!!
Thanks for another great post, Wendy.
Wendy,this post and the comments were a blessing.
As lights in a dark world our speech both in writing and verbally should to be seasoned with gentleness. Asking WWJD and being in prayer will keep us from saying hasty and unkind words. I tell my teens this although they don’t see the importance now.
Wonderful post, relevant in our “rude is cool” culture.
Great comments on accountability and bridge-building rather bridge-burning.
A couple of other issues…effectiveness and acceptability to God. Strong opinions can be expressed in a gracious way. Strong opinions may possibly be given more serious consideration when gracious than when snarky.
“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt…” Grace seasons our words like salt seasons food to make it more palatable. When the goal is to influence a receptive listener, use grace. When the goal is to be acceptable to God, use grace.
“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14