Why Are We So Horrible to Each Other Online?

This historian Heather Cox Richardson posted this question as a hypothetical and invited responses. As often happens, I realized that my response was the rough draft of a blog post, and because it’s about written communication, this is the blog it belongs in. I have, of course, messed with it a bit. 😉

Aside: If you have any interest in U.S. history and/or the current U.S. political situation and you aren’t already following HCR’s Letters from an American, you should. As a subscriber, I can blather in the comments, but you can read it for free. You can find it in your inbox almost every morning. Also for free, you can listen to the podcast Now and Then, which she recently started with sister historian Joanne Freeman on the Vox/Cafe network.

Well, in my experience plenty of people aren’t horrible to each other online, and “online” isn’t monolithic. Some online situations facilitate horrible behavior and others don’t. My hunch is that a big factor is that online we can’t see the reaction our words are having. In face-to-face (F2F) encounters we can. (Need I say that some people are capable of being horrible F2F and never regretting it.) Humans are sensitive to the physical presence of others — this is even true for those who perform before large audiences. Online we don’t have those cues. We’re posting in isolation.

I suspect that my mostly positive experience over the years on Facebook is partly due to the fact that a significant percentage of my FB friends are, like me, editors and/or writers, or they work in fields where communication is front and center, like education or health care. We pay close attention to the intended audience for what we’re writing or saying. This shapes how we say it, both the words and the tone. Most of us most of the time probably do this without thinking too much about it.

Those of us who move through different circles in the course of a day or write/edit for different audiences become adept at code-switching. I’m currently editing a book-length manuscript about the oil industry. The intended audience includes readers who know a lot about the oil industry and/or a fair amount about economics, but it also includes readers who are interested in energy politics but know little about economics or the oil company at the center of this book. Earlier this year I edited (1) a travel memoir focused on the Adriatic, and (2) a memoir that combines personal history with African-American history and women’s experience into a hard-to-describe whole. I’m here to tell you that no style guide recommendation I know of could apply to all three jobs. Too much depends on the subject at hand and the intended audience.

Consider, too, that plenty of people active online have less-than-stellar skills in written communication, period. They aren’t accustomed to speaking with people outside of their own circle either. In other words, I’m not surprised that many people are horrible to each other online. This makes me value all the more the skills I’ve developed as an editor.

Over the decades I’ve learned to pay close attention not just to individual behavior but to the underlying systems that shape it. Since I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter last year (I held out for a long time, and on the whole I don’t think I’ve missed much), I’ve noticed a big difference between them and the e-groups I’ve been part of since the late 1990s. Part of it has to do with effective moderation (on Facebook and Twitter there effectively isn’t any), but even more it has to do with structure. The structure of social media makes it hard to have anything close to a conversation or discussion. The comment threads move in one direction only. Subthreads surface here and there, but they’re mostly ephemeral.

If you take umbrage at what someone else has posted, it is very hard to ask that person what s/he meant. Since we generally know very little about the person whose post we’re pissed off at, misunderstandings are inevitable, and it’s much easier to fire back a rejoinder than to ask for clarification.

And we’ve learned that Facebook et al. ❤ this. Their algorithms privilege posts that inspire immediate reactions — emojis and sharing — not those that encourage temperate speech and clarification. As writers and editors we know how much communication benefits from the ability to step back for a few minutes (or hours, or days). Social media do not encourage this.

The short version? As writers, editors, and other word people we know that communication is possible across political, regional, ethnic, and all sorts of differences. We know that we have the skills to help it happen. But social media does not make it easy. I hope it doesn’t make it impossible.

B Is for Blogs & Bookstores

Some letters are friendlier to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge than others. Which is to say I could get through the month on maybe eight letters and never run short of topics. Other letters, however . . . On my brainstorm list I’ve got no shortage of Cs, Fs, and Ss but blanks for K, L, N, O, U, V, X, Y, and Z. Not to worry: one thing you learn and keep relearning as a writer to trust the process and don’t panic. The muses will come through if you let them.

I came to blogging rather late in the game, like early in 2011. My first blog was From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, about being a longtime year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Most widely circulated writing about the Vineyard is done by people who haven’t spent enough time here to know what they don’t know, so I wanted to do my bit to correct the imbalance.

Maybe three years later I started this blog, Write Through It. Since 1997 I’d been an active contributor to online editors’ groups, first Copyediting-L and eventually the Editors’ Association of Earth groups on Facebook. It dawned on me that not only was I learning a lot from these ongoing discussions — they’re great continuing education for freelancers — I’d been editing and writing long enough to have a lot to offer my colleagues. Why not put some of it in a blog?

The cataclysmic U.S. election year of 2016 redirected my energies in a big way. My blogging output is way down, I’m not actively following nearly as many blogs as I used to, and most of the people who’ve subscribed to mine in the last few years have no apparent connection with the subjects. But it’s still a pretty good way to get your words out there and maybe start developing an audience.

As a matter of fact, a little over a month ago I started a new blog: The T-Shirt Chronicles. My more than 190 T-shirts span my life back to 1976, so I’m using them to organize a sort of memoir. Perhaps it’ll eventually turn out to be the rough draft for a book, but for now it’s a work in its own right.


The T-Shirt Chronicles haven’t gotten to Lammas yet, but they will.

During the first half of the 1980s I was the book buyer at Lammas, D.C.’s feminist bookstore. Bookstores testify to the the power of the written word. I had a personal relationship with every book on the shelves. It was there because I’d ordered it, and like as not I’d unpacked it, logged it into inventory, and shelved it. Whether I’d read it or not, I knew enough about it to point customers toward it if they might be interested in the subject or the author.

And almost every day I got to listen to customers talk about how a particular book or story had affected them, or even changed their life

Though I left both the job and D.C. in 1985, and though the store — like so many feminist and other independent bookstores — no longer exists, it’s my experience there that gets me through the times when my faith falters and I’m sure that writing doesn’t matter. If you’re lucky enough to live within reach of a real live bookstore, you probably already know the feeling. Clicking through the options at Mega Online Retailer doesn’t come close.

A Is for Audience

OK, it’s day 1 of the 2021 Blogging from A to Z Challenge. 🙂 My theme is Getting the Words Out, and since I’m both a writer and an editor, I’m going to be approaching this from several directions:

  • Getting the words out of your head and onto paper or screen
  • Getting those words into places where other people can see them

So here goes . . .

Listen to musicians, actors, public speakers, and almost anyone who performs in front of live audiences and they’ll often tell you that their performance is affected by how that audience is being affected by them.

In face-to-face conversations or discussions (remember those?), we consciously or subconsciously respond to how our listeners are responding to us. Are they nodding in agreement or are they starting to fidget? Are they itching to interrupt? We adjust our words, tone, and/or body language to engage them or keep them from blowing up or walking away.

Most of the time when we’re writing, there’s no one else around. (We may have had to shut a door or two to get ourselves a little peace and quiet.)

But we’ve still got an audience, and it’s not limited to the people we hope at some future date will read or hear whatever we’re working on. Someone’s paying attention from inside our head. Whether we’re aware of them or not, they’re influencing the words that appear on paper or screen.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, a character or a person you’re writing about may have interrupted to say, No, it didn’t happen that way or That doesn’t sound like me.

A poet friend, once asked who she wrote for, replied, “I write for the woman who told me my poems make her work so hard but it’s always worth it.”

The word audience comes from the present participle of the Latin verb audīre, to hear. Think audio and audible. Your audience is whoever’s listening, and whoever you want to listen.

When I write reviews, or essays, or, come to think of it, blog posts like this one, I’m usually trying to figure out what I think about some topic that interests me. I’ll stick to it till I’m satisfied. Sometimes that’s enough. Other times I want to communicate knowledge I think is important or persuade others to consider a different perspective. In those cases I’ll often have a specific person or two in mind. Ideally that person is willing to put some effort into it.

Handwriting sample, or Why I write first drafts in longhand

It doesn’t help if that person is hyper- and often prematurely critical. For me a big challenge of being both a writer and an editor is not letting the editor mess with early-draft writing. I get around this by doing much of my first-drafting in pen and ink. My handwriting is messy enough that my internal editor has a hard time reading it. Crisp, perfectly formed letters on the computer screen, on the other hand, expose every typo and grammar gaffe.

Having an editor on call who works pro bono is a huge asset when the time comes, but timing is everything. Ideally she comes when called but not until then.


If you decide to make public what you’ve written, you’ll be making conscious decisions about audience: Who is my audience, and how do I reach them? In publishing, this is what marketing and distribution are all about, but publishing isn’t the only way to get your words out. This will come up again in subsequent posts. Watch this space.


As an editor who edits writing by other people, I let the intended audience guide my decisions about what vocabulary is appropriate and what ideas need how much explanation. A primarily academic audience specializing in a particular subject will not need as much historical background as the general audience for a book on that same subject. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, and romance (etc.) each has its own tropes and conventions that don’t need explaining. A novel intended to cross over into a more general audience will have to navigate the middle ground between explaining too little and explaining too much. We’ll come back to this, I promise.

Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

View original post 660 more words

It’s An Illusion

Having a story to tell is a great first step. Getting it across to readers who aren’t privy to your intentions? That’s where the craft comes in. Here’s some excellent guidance on how to keep readers engaged without giving everything away or withholding too much till the very end.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Entertainment at the annual Brevity office party

A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.

They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?

I said, “But there’s this countdown…”

“Countdown to what?”

And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.

I’d spent seven years with…

View original post 592 more words

Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.

How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Mired in the thickets of writing and editing, we sometimes lose sight of why we do what we do. We’re creating stuff — fiction and nonfiction, stories, poems, essays, and whole books — that will get people to read. Here’s a reminder. Thanks to Charles French for his blog post calling this to my attention.

M.C. Tuggle, Writer

Reading

There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with…

View original post 199 more words

But That’s How It Happened!

“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”

This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.

I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.

An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?

Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.

This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.

When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.

Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .

Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.

And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you.  This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?

If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.

Do the Doing: An Actor Writes

This seems related to my recent post about details. Using her experience as an actress, the author writes: “Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.” I think something similar is true for writers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest post from Cecile Callan:

“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.

I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.

“But it feels that intense,” I argued.

“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.

I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had…

View original post 797 more words

Keep Yourself Accountable – Find a Writing Buddy

Here’s an idea if you’re not in a writers’ group, or even if you are.

Business in Rhyme

writing-buddy

Solace. I always emphasize how solitude is your great companion in writing. Stillness of environment allows the quietness of mind to take place and gives you opportunity to clear your thinking. You can easily access the deepest corners of your being and reconnect with your inner-self. Many writers take advantage and even pick remote and distant places when they are writing their books. I also believe it has to do with fact that in that kind of idle conditions we are able to tune in that inner conversation and it becomes clearer what is it that we want to convey.

For me, early morning hours are crucial for focused and productive writing. When mind is still in dream mode, silence and serenity that surrounds my home form almost ideal condition for writing. So, I always encourage writers to find those special moments during the day when their energy and creativity…

View original post 575 more words