The Last Stop-Gap to Credible, Reader-Minded Writing: Our Integrity

There are 1001 reasons to be glad that the barriers to writing have virtually disappeared in recent years and decades. In many places, especially online, there is nary a speed bump to slow us down before we press publish.

Thanks to social media, anyone can write anything and post it everywhere.

Book publishing, which used to require writers to jump through many hoops and likely stumble upon some luck, has opened to self-publishing, and many of us are taking good advantage of it (including myself). This means we writers no longer need to hope and pray for an agent or seek third-party approval of any kind before sharing our words with the public.

In the process of self-publishing my book, I hired an editor, as well as other book publishing professionals. I relied heavily on experts and information on the web for the answers I needed. But, thanks to Amazon, you don’t need to hire an editor, or anyone at all for that matter. Anyone can write a book, slap a cover on it, publish it, and offer it for sale the same day.

The dropping of the barriers has been a boon for writers, but perhaps not so much for readers. How can a reader trust, without doing a fair amount of research on their own, what’s written in a book or an article? How can they sort out the truth from the lies when there are writers who will intentionally try to pass off lies as truth? How can we know if writers are writing solely for some personal gain or incentive—to make money, go viral, gain publicity—or if they’re writing to benefit the reader?

And—correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t we supposed to be writing for the reader?

To be fair, readers have some share of the responsibility, too.

Who should we believe? These days, it’s whomever you want to believe. The truth is the set of “facts” that best supports our worldview. We measure credibility by what “feels” the best. And perhaps it’s hard, as writers, to resist the urge to give them what they want.

We all write for some personal incentive or gain. But what happens when the incentive is to write inflammatory content, and when the loudest, most shocking voice is what gets attention?

But, when writing comes down to nothing more than the spreading of rumors, gossip, propaganda, and even hate, is it even writing anymore? When our intention is to rile people to anger, to suspicion, or even to violence, can this be considered a service any longer? Is it still an art form when it’s no longer designed to be of benefit or share important information? Or, is it just a perversion of these things?

I know for myself, I’ve fallen into the trap of writing a clickbaity title that I’m sure will get someone’s attention. I’ve used rhetoric that is stronger than I truly require. I’ve used more emotional, or perhaps sexier, headlines and pictures than the content called for from time to time. It’s a fine line we walk as writers, trying to get the attention of a reader while remaining aligned to our integrity.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of superlatives, exaggerations, or dramatizations. Because no, it’s not true that we “must have” the newest shapewear. It’s a little overkill to say we’re “obsessing” over a new lipstick color. This is how words lose power. How they lose meaning. And how we lose credibility.

Human beings are not straightforward. Our intentions are always muddled and imperfect. We all can slip from writing intended to persuade into writing that manipulates, projects, blames, or in any other way abuses the reader. But what happens when the cultural incentive is to write inflammatory content, and when the loudest, most shocking voice is what gets the clicks and the eyeballs?

With few official gatekeepers remaining (outside of major magazines and newspapers) the only thing that stands between the writer and the reader anymore is the writer’s integrity. (And trust me: I’m not suggesting we bring the gatekeepers back. Their integrity was not necessarily solid gold, either.)

But the danger in writing and publishing in a world without gatekeepers is that the work itself can become cheapened for all of us. We can, as a collective, lose credibility and trust due to the lack of care and attention of some.

I like to hope that most of us writers still try to put out a piece that we stand by, and create content that does some good in this world.

Readers come to our work anywhere on the spectrum of gullible, mildly trusting, or wildly skeptical. It is our job, as writers, to earn their trust. We do this by telling them the truth. By sourcing our statistics. By not making up fake syndromes or calling everyone a narcissist just to get people to read. By giving credit where due and paraphrasing, never plagiarising.

Just as I was writing this paragraph, my friend

sent me this quote. How providential.

“It is not nearly so important how well a message is received as how well it is sent. You cannot take responsibility for how well another accepts your truth; you can only ensure how well it is communicated. And by how well, I don’t mean merely how clearly; I mean how lovingly, how compassionately, how sensitively, how courageously, and how completely.”

~Neil Donald Walsh

This says it all.

It is up to us, as writers, to offer quality work that meets the standards of our own internal values. Is it true? Is it honest? Is there intentionality behind the work that goes beyond benefitting ourselves?

Doctors have to take the Hippocratic Oath when they begin practicing medicine, and even that does not prevent malpractice.

What do we writers have to hold us to the rigors of our craft?

What holds us to our word and compels us to check and double-check our work so it is the best we can do?

What reminds us that we have a responsibility to the reader and to the truth?

It is not the gatekeepers any longer. Only our integrity remains.

“Work with integrity and succeed with integrity.”

Abdul Kalam

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