Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Self-Censoring

In a rather controversial blog post (that I won’t link to) I was accused of encouraging writers to self-censor, and while I don’t think the reader was talking at all about what I’m going to talk about today, the comment really got me thinking. After all, as writers or, more important, as businesspeople, publishing professionals, isn’t it part of your job to know how to censor yourself? I know that when I undertook the challenge of writing this blog that was one of the things I had to think about and have to think about on a daily basis. What do I think is appropriate content for my readers and what isn’t? What do you want to hear me say and what is, truthfully, none of your business? Most important, though, if I want to build a readership, self-censorship is imperative.

Certainly a topic that’s frequently discussed in writing circles are writer blogs and what authors should and shouldn’t be writing about. I don’t think there’s a specific list of course, but I do think that it’s important to know that as a writer you are building a brand and your name is that brand. Many of you know this already, which is why you only post anonymously on the blog; others have discussed removing some content from your blogs, or are starting a second blog for your personal opinions, one not connected to your business name.

Self-censorship also happens in fiction. It’s called editing. If you are writing a specific genre you are writing for a very specific audience. They have certain expectations about what they will find in your book and, yes, whether we want to admit it or not, many have certain expectations about who the author is. This can be especially true for those writing for a Christian or inspirational market.

Certainly I don’t support censorship. I think we should all have the right to read what we want, express our beliefs and opinions, and be who we are. That being said, I think it’s naïve to think that others don’t judge us or make opinions about us and our work based on their own beliefs, opinions and, yes, prejudices. I’ve said it over and over. Writing is a craft or hobby, publishing is a business, and whether you want to admit it or not, building a career in publishing sometimes means censoring yourself.

Jessica

40 comments:

J.C. Hutchins said...

Hey Jessica -- Longtime reader, first-time commenter. I was nodding in agreement throughout this post.

What writers *don't* write is just as important as what they *do* write ... and all writers should be dedicated to the comfort of the reader, and accessibility of the work, above all.

As a novelist who plays in the sci-fi and horror genres, these creative crossroads abound. How gory/violent should a scene be? How much information does the reader actually need about a spaceship's engines? Similar crossroads can be found in any genre.

It's easy to overdo this stuff -- and by doing so, writers risk alienating readers, and reducing opportunities to be published.

Donna Lea Simpson said...

We should all be free to say, write and do exactly what we want all the time.

Rubbish.

Self-censorship is also called being an adult. You don't tell your dear demented Great-Aunt Florrie that the dress she's wearing would look better on a circus clown. You self-censor.

If you are a professional writer, you never say anything in public you are not willing to own and defend, and if you go ahead anyway and use profanity in a blog, criticize your editor or publisher, or say something cruel, and it ends up hurting your career, you have now just learned an expensive life-lesson. You're free to say, write and do exactly what you want... and live with the consequences. Don't complain if the consequences are unexpected and harsh.

Lydia Sharp said...

I have worked in retail for the past eight years. There are certain behaviors and speech that are allowed in the employee breakroom that can get you fired if you engage in them on the sales floor in front of customers.

To me, it's the same thing here. Be professional where you need to be.

Rick Daley said...

Awesome post. I have met many talented writers who do not have much practical business experience. Here are a few things I have learned about Marketing:

- Know your target audience. For most writers this will be one particular genre: YA, SciFi, Romance, Literary, Suspense/Thriller, Horror, Mystery, etc.

- Brand Identity. You are your brand, but you need to decide on the face of that brand with respect to your target audience. While it may be possible for a writer to have two brands, they are usually distinct (Nora Roberts / JD Robb, for example) to avoid confusion within the target market(s).

- Brand Awareness. One you know your target market and you have come up with a brand identity, you market that brand. Your publisher will help, of course, but this is where your blogging, twittering, facebook pages, etc. come into play. Your brand awareness needs to be aligned with your brand identity and target audience.

Anonymous said...

You remind me of arguments I have had with beginning writers whose writing seems to be a string of four-letter words.

They tell me those words have *power*. Which they do, of course: the power to make nine readers out of ten turn away in disgust.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree that self-censorship is sometimes essential.

I'm trying to get published as a middle-grade and YA writer, so my blog can't get too bawdy, like The Bloggess, or I could alienate potential agents, publishers, and young readers.

In addition, writing about my daily life as a struggling writer, substitute teacher, wife, and mother on my blog sometimes forces me into a position of deciding whether or not to reveal information about family and friends. I constantly try to balance being genuine and protecting privacy. It's not easy.

In fact, I recently wrote a post about wrestling with being true to myself versus maintaining discretion called, "Shades of Gray":

http://theresamilstein.blogspot.com/2009/11/shades-of-gray.html

james said...

Self censorship is akin to factor 2 of "Emotional Intelligence" which is self-regulation. Meaning that you need to act properly to the situation at hand.

Anonymous said...

You are 100% correct. I'm a Christian and a writer, but I'm not necessarily trying to write for a Christian audience. One of my critique groups knew I was a Christian and my critiques came back combative and claimed that I was "preaching through my writing." Another group I'm in, who didn't know I was Christian, gave me no such critique. This experience made me very wary of revealing my personal details if I want my writing to be successful.

Laurel said...

The word censor is losing its original meaning. Using your common sense to maintain a marketable identity is not censorship. Taking it a step further and choosing not to buy something because it violates personal standards or beliefs is not censorship, either. If you engage in preventing other from reading/saying/watching things you find offensive by attempting to make that content illegal then you have censorship.

We seem to be slipping into the fallacy that the right to say something equals the right to be heard. Not the same thing. You can say whatever you want but you have to entice people to listen.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Perhaps the difficulty lies in the word "censorship", which implies some social or political castration. People naturally get prickly towards it.

"Discretion" might be more applicable, and we live in an age where the ability to be discreet seems more and more rare. There was a time when discretion was linked not only to propriety, but to maturity.

I wonder if such subtle but powerful (in their way) qualities can be re-learned in a society seemingly hell-bent on avoiding both maturity and discretion.

Ulysses said...

I don't consider what you discuss to be self-censorship*. I consider it self-control in the name of professional presentation. But semantics aside, I agree that it must be exercised by anyone in public view.

I blog anonymously, and although I hope my posts are occasionally thought-provoking, moving or humorous, I am under no illusion that they are professional. For that reason, I've divorced them from the name under which I hope to write professionally. A client checking my clips should not have to endure my ranting about (for example) the most recent deficiencies in my breakfast. It's unlikely to give them the image of me that I want them to have.

*For me, censorship is making the decision about what can be read or written by someone else.

The Daring Novelist said...

Unfortunately, a lot of writers see writing as an escape first, and as an avocation second. For most of us it's some kind of combination, but when the escape is foremost, it's hard to take any kind of restriction.

But the truth is, self-control has great rewards. Not only does it improve your writing, it makes your writing more fulfilling.

fionaskye said...

Thank you for this post. As a baby publishing businessperson, I am blundering my way through this labyrinth very much on my own and it's helpful to find guideposts like this along the way.

While it seems like a big "no duh" sort of thing to keep in mind, I'm afraid that common sense is severely lacking in today's society. I had never thought of the efforts one puts into publishing their work as being something that creates a brand name out of one's own identity. And perhaps this just further illustrates my point that common sense isn't common.

DebraLSchubert said...

In many ways, self-censorship is as important as breathing. We all do it and we all should do it. We do it in conversations with everyone in our lives, even those who know us best. It's called being "civilized" and "grown up."

Self-censorship is particularly important when editing - editing is a focused process where we choose our words carefully and thoughtfully. Self-censorship is imperative to improving our craft and is quite distinct from "censorship."

Thanks for bringing up this topic - very interesting!

Anonymous said...

I think that whoever wrote the blog to which you refer probably used the term "censorship" to get the expected reaction (like when certain political candidates use the word terrorism when it doesn't actually apply). I've read this blog for a long time, and have learned a lot about what editors, agents, and readers are looking for. This is something any writer who wants to be published (or continue to be) thinks about. True, it's best to just let it all "hang out" in your first draft, but in revisions, you have to consider this among all the other things. I write cozies. In later drafts, I look for inappropriate language, e.g, and alter it for my audience. How would you feel if Miss Marple said, ----? I thought so.

Colette said...

Great topic. Self-censorship is simply being deliberate and choosing exactly what you want to say and how to say it. Clearly this is a good thing.

Tara McClendon said...

My family and I call this filtering, which is perhaps easier to swallow than censorship. In certain places, you're expected to know how to behave, and the way you talk (or write) plays into it. People who don't filter sometimes think they are being authentic. More often they are being immature or disrespectful.

Tricia said...

Well said Jessica!

ryan field said...

I'm constantly censoring myself. And always my own blog.

Kate Douglas said...

Excellent post, Jessica. Since I do everything under my own name--the one I publish under--I constantly filter (I do like that term, Tara!) what I say in a public forum. I do the same thing when I write. Even though my Wolf Tales are sexually explicit, there are some words and many sexual acts I refuse to include, mainly because I find them offensive. My feelings are that if they bother me, they're definitely going to bug some of my readers. It's all about thinking things through before making a public statement, whether in a blog or in a book.

My word verification is "dipsycho"
A nerdy psychotic?

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I've read through all these comments and as a new blogger appreciate the reminders here. I don't blog under the name which I submit my work, but I have links to published pieces. So, I'm careful what I put out there. Still, believe me, I need constant mental reminders that my blog is not my diary. In private journaling, I'm absolutely free, but I've no need for others to see those thoughts. Writing for an audience is a whole dift. animal.

Sarah Olutola said...

Yeah, I agree. I think people just have to be smart about it. You can make a statement, but statements are always more effective when you understand when and where and how to make them, and to who. Know your audience and what you want your brand to be.

Bonnie C said...

In high school my best friend used to proclaim "Everyone is entitled to MY opinion!" which, at sixteen, always cracked me up. Then we grew up and began the cycle of jobs and relationships and learned that this was not necessarily true.

Unfortunately it seems that current society has embraced that juvenile doctrine with zeal. We live in an age where we have instant and (relatively) easy access to just about everything, especially forums for our opinions; a major downside to that is many no longer feel the need to filter their responses anymore. One of the authors I admire most (and hope to grow up to be one day) will occasionally post on her blog something to the effect of, “I saw a THING and it made me VERY ANGRY and I dashed off a RANT… that I will not be posting here because I’ve had time to cool off.” Now while I would very much like to read said rant(s) because she is hilariously sharp, I respect her decision to keep it to herself. We don’t need to know everything.

If feels to me the meat of this post is geared more towards regulating your online behavior over censoring your actual writing – a very worthy topic. Hasn’t anyone else ever been slapped with the admonishment, “Would you kiss your mother with that mouth?” I do not mean in anyway to advocate folding your tongue permanently behind your teeth and playing meek the rest of your life, but an adult expects consequences for his/her actions. Society could benefit greatly from a bit of a growth spurt.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Yes! We all have the right to say or write or think what we want. However, when we put our words out there, we need to realize that we will be judged on them, and have the wisdom to decide when something is so important that we must say it no matter what and when it would be better to hold ourselves back so as to risk not alienating our audience, inviting unwanted controversy, etc.

However, I too am of the opinion that this is not quite censorship. That's such a loaded term that I think a lot of people are struggling with it. While in the most technical sense, some may view self-editing as censoring, I have to disagree. To me, censorship represents a conscious effort to keep words or ideas suppressed. Toning down your writing to ward off undesirable consequences or to beef up your marketability is personal discretion.

Mira said...

Well.....

On one level I agree. I think you should always be careful of what you say. You don't want to be hurtful, or mean, or rude.

But, I think there is a great misunderstanding by industry professionals about the building of a brand on the internet.

It seems as though you are defining this as building a reputation as a professional.

This is where I strongly disagree. I couldn't disagree more. In fact, if you're wondering, I disagree with this! :)

That meets the needs of the industy. It does not build a brand.

Building a brand on the internet as a writer is really about being entertaining, being provocative (without being rude or mean), having something to say, being honest, being up-front, in short, being someone who is interesting enough that people want to read what you have to say.

Being a professional and always being careful to use business protocol on the internet, at the heart of it, is boring.

There is a great push to define the internet as business. There are alot of motivations for that - some good, some not so good - but it's truly missing the point.

The internet is MARKETING. I don't want to build a name for myself as someone who is cooperative and polite.

I AM cooperative and polite. But I prefer to build a name for myself related to my other qualities: smart, bright, interesting, funny, outrageous at times, honest to a fault, brave, original.

That's the brand I want to build.

Anonymous said...

Jessica – I am sorry you got lambasted by someone for stating an obvious truth.

Sadly, we are living in a society that increasingly forgets that with every right there is a corresponding responsibility. Sure we could refuse to self-edit. We could speak and write without regard to others – brutal truth all the time -- but as members of a civilized society we have a responsibility not to use our rights as a club. I have always believed that my right to make others uncomfortable should be used sparingly and when necessary to make a larger point, not gratuitously. And as far as writing goes, I am not trying to publish the next great literary novel, nor provoke political action or force people to re-examine their lives by making them uncomfortable. There is nothing wrong with a book doing any of those things, but I personally am writing novels as entertainment.

Krista G. said...

It's like my mother always told me: "Think before you speak" (or write). And we all need to do that.

Dawn Maria said...

I finally opened a personal Twitter account last month and kept my old one, with my pen name, for my writing life. I should have done that from the beginning I suppose. I still make personal comments, but I feel like I can be more myself in each place better than having them mixed together.

Anonymous said...

Interesting.

I've stopped following some agents on Twitter as they tweet all the time (like 40 times an hour), but it is about drivel in their personal lives that quite frankly, is stuff that should be left personal. I don't mind the odd personal quip, but I don't need a running blow-by-blow of your day. Look up from your cellphone every once and awhile and enjoy the sunshine.

jholdsworth.wright said...

Laurel, terrific comment.
Also, sometimes holding back a little actually helps your cause. Take PETA--they mean well, but they're dismissed as a bunch of nuts b/c of the way they go about things. Sometimes you have to make what you have to say more easily digested in order for people to take notice.

Anonymous said...

Conversely, when the story demands a repugnant scene or line of dialog, you as a writer must have the courage to go there. However, you do not need to use filthy language or be explicit in details. Generally, repacing the events that lead to something repulsive can give it the force it needs.

Another example - "'You idiot!' Sam shouted as he put his fist through the mirror" does not need the big bad four-letter word, but the force of that word is implied, especially when this instance is the rare time you break the "she said, he said" rule.

Anonymous said...

What about controversy selling?

For example, after Adam Lambert did something that apparently some people found objectionable, there was a controversy and his album is selling quite well.

Sometimes the in your face person gets the attention. And the sales. Would Sarah Palin be where she is today if she were Kay Bailey Huchinson?

Sheila Deeth said...

Maybe given what a hot-button word censorship is, we might call it emotional intelligence instead.

Lily Robinson said...

Amen. Today they call in self-censoring. Back in the olden days, we called it common sense.

Susan Quinn said...

Well said! I agree that discretion and professionalism is important - especially on blogs where all you have is your written word to convey your meaning. I try to use it well.

MarianneHarden said...

Often, how one says something is as important as what they say, which is why some blog posts or comments come off different, or more truculent than intended since we cannot see and experience the purveyors body language, expression, or tone of voice.

Just another skill this new marketing vehicle requires writers and others to develop, which makes me think of Mira

Mira, you crack me up. You have the rare gift of disagreeing without being combative. Without a doubt, the brand you’ve created makes me want to read your work

Anonymous said...

As a published journalist/editor with degrees in Journalism and English, I'm offended that you think "Writing is a hobby." I've supported myself as a writer/editor my whole adult life and I doubt the IRS would see it as a hobby since I pay taxes on my income.

Sure, for many wanna-bes it may be a hobby. But writing is hard work, not a fun hobby for serious writers. And you, Jessica, as a J-major yourself, should know better!

Mira said...

MarianneHarden,

Thank you! That felt wonderful to hear. :)

I'll float on that for days - thank you! :)

And I agree very much with your point. The internet is tricky because you can't see people's reactions. You do have to be careful.

CommonSenseWriter said...

Jessia, great post.

Any writer who actually makes money understands how important their professional reputation is. And to keep the money coming, they will conduct themselves appropriately (whatever works for them or their work). The writers who usually scream loudest about self "censorship" are the ones who haven't been published.

I would also like to see writers spend less time bashing the publishing industry and more time coming up with something interesting to say.

metal bookends said...

As a child and teen, I was an avid reader and writer. I read all of the Newbery winners and everything by Judy Blume. I transitioned to spooky stories during adolescence. Along the way, I also read graphic-format books (which we used to call “comics”).