The Etiquette of Electronic Eloquence
The topic of politeness is dominating current discussions of politics in particular, but the general issue of generating respect for others as well as yourself via the manner in which you communicate publicly is a longtime professional concern, in any industry, whether on or off “the clock.”
Writers are always writers, meaning anything they write and share on a public platform is considered “published.” And it's often being consumed by the same audience you're trying to turn into customers.
When it comes to both the business and craft of writing – which is the ongoing subject of this column in a nutshell – it’s wise to always choose your words carefully, because once you have created a public profile via social media and your body of work, you are in essence a “public figure.” And you will be judged accordingly, whether fairly or unfairly.
This latter situation is when your temperament as an author is tested the most. Whether you’re responding to criticism, cruelty, compliments or a combination of all three, you will have to learn how to keep a level head and not engage in emotional exchanges that will only backfire on your professional image, even if the instigator is in the wrong.
Of course this is not only easier said than done, but it applies broadly across the spectrum of professional writing, top to bottom and back again. Since we’re all human, it’s only natural that sometimes we will lose our cool and lash out at someone that is not only being rude to you, but insulting you in full view of both friends and strangers, even if it’s from a safe distance.
Starve the Zombies!
The best thing to do when dealing with online “hecklers” or trolls is to ignore them, since they feed on the attention. If, on the other hand, someone is simply providing constructive feedback on your work, be appreciative that they’re taking the time to share their thoughts. That sort of mutually respectful rapport is a significant aspect of your relationship with readers.
But “feedback” and “backlash” are two different challenges, and require different types of responses.
Depending on the source of the negativity (which you should always consider before making a decision on whether to even dignify it with acknowledgement), your “tone of voice” could be angry, hurt, indignant, bemused, or if it is indeed a thoughtful critique, gratitude.
In any case, “shouting” back IN ALL CAPS is always a bad idea, since that only let your antagonist know they’ve crawled under your skin. Plus remember that whenever you’re engaging in an online argument or feud, the eyes of hundreds or even thousands of strangers will be watching, especially if your Facebook isn’t set to “private” or restricted to “friends only” (as opposed to “public” or “friends of friends”). Unless you're diplomatic, you run the risk of embarrassing yourself in a very visible arena.
As an author, you probably want to keep you Facebook posts set to “public,” especially if like me, your social media platforms (Twitter, YouTube, etc.) exist primarily to promote your work.
This is exactly why you always need to treat your social media pages like they’re for a column in the New York Times. Perhaps not nearly so formally structured, of course, but definitely mindful of the fact you have a wide audience, and you don’t want to alienate any potential customers with public fits of rage, self-pity parties, or expressions of personal pique. Politics is also a touchy topic that can turn off readers that don’t share your views, but that’s a subjective call. Just remember whenever you do so, you're openly inviting hostility from the opposition.
I’ve learned the hard way to steer clear of controversial subjects unless the public airing of my personal views somehow conforms to the public image I’m presenting, or at the very least, doesn’t harm or contradict it. I also want to avoid pointlessly contentious debates and save my literary energy for writing that actually pays, or is at least artistically satisfying.
Again, I am not preaching. I am as guilty of morbid or inflammatory posts as anyone. But I am learning to control my urges to spew out anything best reserved for private reflection or therapy, even if it’s just a walk with a dog.
Count to Ten...Or a Hundred...
Taking a deep breath before you post a status update or send a tweet is always a good idea. It’s also smart not to respond to rejection by tagging or identifying the editor or publisher that turned you down.
I’ve actually quoted rejection letters and other detailed other setbacks in this column and on Facebook, without naming the source, for the purpose of making a larger point that may benefit other writers. But in this process I need to be very careful that I’m not humiliating myself by dragging the reputations of others through the mud. Nobody likes the smell of sour grapes.
Likewise, even in personal email correspondence, be careful not to “incriminate” yourself with language that others can use against you at some point, for whatever reason. This is yet another topic of current political conversations, which we won’t have here.
Remember anything you send out, even privately, is subject to hacking and exposure against your will. Sure, that’s unfair, but so is life.
But also, many great writers have written many great letters, to colleagues, editors, fans, etc., and those are often compiled into books that are both instructive and illuminating. I’ve derived deep inspiration from the collected letters of Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski, for instance.
They are not only well written, they are wise, even when exposing the vulnerability and self-doubts of their authors, which only makes them that much more relatable.
So whenever you write anything, public or private, think of it being included in an anthology of your “letters” one day. Because they just might be - whether your authorize it or not.
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