Respect Is the Writer's Bedrock
In this world swimming with scandal, corruption, injustice, and flat-out lies, it can be a little disheartening to exist at times, at least for those who've refused to get swept up in this churning river of mud. Even if you're not having to fight for your basic civil rights, you've no doubt felt the sting of disrespect, mistrust, or that little pinch of doubt as you signed on the dotted line of contract X or shook the hand of person Y, at some point in your life.
Respect, honor, integrity. Regardless of your profession, regardless of your background, these values are still our bedrock. And for us writers, even more so—because we hold in our hands and our minds the power of the word. It is a power that has toppled governments, built and destroyed civilizations, upended religions and moved nations. It's the power that decides who gets to rule and who gets to be oppressed.
Respect yourself as a writer, and respect your readers. Do not ever fail in this regard, for everything—everything—that you'll need to be a successful author, will follow.
Respect Will Always Follow You
(And So Will Its Evil Twin)
Don't think that somehow that novel you're working on deserves royal treatment while the emails you fire off daily to friends, colleagues, or clients don't get a second look. Every email, every online comment, every social media post you put out there reflects you and creates a lifetime's trail of impressions, also known as “reputation.” Is your trail spotless, rich with interesting fruits of your thought, or pock-marked by rants, comments you wish you could erase off the face of the World Wide Web forever? Remember: if it's online, it is forever.
Once upon a time, we didn't have to worry about this trail. There were no cloud servers, email networks, or spyware. But knowing that every email you send out is hackable (just ask the heads of SONY), and that “delete” button on your social media accounts means something else in the language of code, has profoundly altered the communications landscape.
Thankfully, it's really not that difficult, once you're aware of all the different places you're leaving your mark. Respectful often simply means mindful.
Respect Defines Relationships
Why do you write? If it’s for any other purpose than your own edification, therapy, or other intimate personal reasons, you should assume there are indeed readers in the equation. When you write for an audience, that audience will form a relationship with you. No matter if it’s not a direct personal relationship. It is still a relationship: you are the creator of the worlds, the stories, the ideas that your books, blogs, and other works funnel into the minds of your readers. That is a sacred thing. You are doing what only a few elite souls were able to engage in just a few centuries ago.
The same goes for everyone who is in any way related to your work: publishers, editors, designers, layout artists, proofreaders, publicists, marketers, reviewers, book club members, librarians, and so on and so on. Watch for the temptation to treat certain people in these circles better than others (Big Six publishing head vs. intern proofreader). Fame, status, power, and wealth have nothing to do with respect, despite all of our societal machinations to the contrary. Nor should you "respect" someone junior to you only because "you never know if s/he will be your boss one day." That's not respect, that's self-interest.
True respect and courtesy consider all human beings as equals, simply because.
How Do I Respect Thee?
Just as importantly, we need to respect our own craft. Let us count the ways:
• Expertise: Whatever topic you choose to write about, be sure it's either one you are highly knowledgeable about, skilled in, or at least familiar with; if it's not, take the time to research it before you start writing. Green writing shows—and there are few easier ways to kill your reputation, as a writer and as a professional in general.
• Grammar: The word alone speaks for itself, but let's include everything from grammar to punctuation and formatting. Proofreading your work (whether you do it yourself for your emails or hire professional copyeditors for book-length works) might seem like an annoyance, but we have enough proverbs about devils and details to demonstrate otherwise. Even after all these years, I re-read my emails at least once before hitting “Send.” Every single person I write to is worth a clean, well written email. Even those unpleasant emails we all sometimes receive from readers who don’t find our works to their liking.
• Do Unto Others…: There is, of course, that flip side. Just as you respect your readers et al, you too should command respect. Remember that respect emanates from a position of neutral strength, meaning you're neither pulling weight to your side nor submitting in weakness. If a reader sends you an impolite email or leaves a scathing review of your work, there are ways to deal with both (we could write entire books on that).
• The Intelligence Factor: Don’t insult your readers, you've no doubt heard. But how do you ensure you’re writing to the proper level of your readers’ sensitivity and knowledge? There is no way you could possibly know the diversity of people who might pick up your book or stumble across a blog post online (including this one!). There is no way to guarantee you’re on target for everyone, but there are certain things that become more or less obvious as you learn the ropes.
For example, don’t spell out, in grinding detail, the underlying reasons for your characters’ behavior—let their actions and words tell the story, the way real life does. Make your readers work for it—they’ll love and respect you more. Do do your research; do open your readers’ minds; do tell them something they’re not likely to know (and if they do, they’ll likely be impressed!).
Respect yourself as a writer and communicator, and respect those you communicate to or with as your readers and audiences.
How do you show respect to your readers, or your other relationships in your writerly life? How have you learned to command respect as a writer?