On Writing

I Read it on the Internet

Myth and MarketingWriting is about credibility. A belief held by your readership that when they invest their time in your words, those words have value. The value can vary from informational to entertainment, but even the latter requires care. Care, that is demonstrated through inclusion of “truth.” The “truth” can be of the “universal” kind one finds in classics or the factual kind in fiction and non-fiction. Credibility is just another way of saying trust. Without the reader’s trust it’s just a bunch of words on a page.

Trust and credibility begin at the simplest level of genre and with the most basic of expectations. A reader trusts that if we are describing our book as “horror” it will be scary. If we claim a mystery there will be something to solve. They trust that we will then go on to tell the story well. Many of the on-line credibility discussions are centered on the mechanics of writing. The writer’s ability to demonstrate he or she has a mastery of grammar, word usages, and spelling— or has hired someone with the skills to ensure those things. A few mistakes in a book or blog is forgiven, but a continuous assault erodes and ultimately destroys credibility.

Grammar and wrong word usages (the infamous there-their-they’re) is easy enough to fix. To not fix them suggests the writer doesn’t care. If the writer doesn’t care about her craft then the reader won’t care for the work either. Credibility, however, extends beyond the basic requirement of mechanics. A writer is expected to hold literature in high regard, to understand the nuances of language, and to be a student and steward of the written word. The writer knows and avoids most cliches because to use them demonstrates intellectual laziness and a lack of creative ability to craft the familiar in a new way. The writer takes a suspicious approach to idioms. When they are called upon, the writer is expected, if not required, to “get them right.” The reader is assuredly lost if the writer states that something is “cut and tried,” or if his character insists an issue in a “mute point” or defends the issue as “case and point.”

There are more than fifty common idioms that people incorrectly say and write. That is fine and amusing for the layman, but as writers such errors suggest we do not understand our craft, that we work in a medium of foreign tools. I found 44 gems over here (http://www.sheknows.com/living/articles/1003885/17-phrases-youre-probably-saying-wrong)

These trust eroding errors demonstrate a writer’s need for research. They are the simple things to correct when compared to the more egregious errors of quoting myth or misunderstanding facts. People hold interesting things to be true which are false. Folklore often plays a role in belief systems. In the Internet age it has become common for people to mistake fiction for fact, advertising for science, and opinion for research.

I’m a voracious researcher. Some of that has to do with my educational pursuits in psychology and some with my appetite for politics, both of which are filled with bold, often false statements, bad science, and hyperbole. When I read or hear a statement I always look at the sources and then check the source’s methodology. Perhaps it hearkens back to that 4th grade exam when I scored a 99 and learned I missed a perfect score because I thought porcupine was to arrow instead of to sword. You can’t get all your science from cartoons. The brain is efficient. It likes to go along with the collective and most people don’t check the facts they accept as true. For a writer that can mean embarrassment and the possible end of a career.

Most people accept that a 21 years of age drinking law prevents higher DUI related incidents. Although the majority of DUI arrests are made on drivers between the ages of 24 and 28. Guns in the home may seem an eminent danger to children, but swimming pools kill eleven times more kids each year than accidental home shootings. It seems to make sense that violent video games increase violent acts in kids. A nice thought but the Bandura study on aggression modeling continues to demonstrate that children model adults, not cartoons and they seldom perceive cartoons as reality. Each of these issues and many more of the “it’s a fact” beliefs are defended with an argument of “it’s still better to be safe than sorry.” Perhaps that is true for society, but the writer should not include accepted falsehood as truth in their work. It ruins ones credibility.  How we feel about a thing doesn’t make a good scientific argument.

As writers we are allowed, actually expected to make stuff up. We create characters, worlds, events, and dialog. Credibility in facts still matters. When I wrote You and Me against the World I made up a “viral” event, but that did not excuse me from proper research. I’m glad I did. A couple of readers looked up my Mimi virus and were surprised to find that it is a real scientific discovery. The Mimi virus is a record of fact. Granted I took liberties with the improbable mutation, but improbable does not mean impossible. These small facts are as important as the correct use of an idiom or the proper placement of a comma. It’s the small things that risk our credibility and the reader’s trust.

We’ve all seen old movies where the six-shooter never runs out of bullets. Or the “hole in the airplane” that sucks everyone out. These are both violations of the truth. Some are acceptable and some are not. We may not have to mention that our characters occasionally use the restroom, but if it’s the end of the world we might consider a quick explanation as to where they get their supplies. I recall several conversations with my brother (a mechanic) on the effect of regular gasoline in a diesel engine and an interesting conversation with a doctor on the possibility of pulling out a person’s spine and what that would look like. Fiction to me doesn’t mean everything is fictitious.

There are of course worse myths on the Internet. Wikipedia is a store house of incorrect information posing as a reliable resource. But it ends in “pedia” just like Encyclopedia. So does cypripedia, but I’ll assume when you need information you don’t talk to an orchid. As bloggers, novelists and written commentators we have a responsibility to avoid promotion of the false and the untrue. And because we are so familiar with the dangers we should be the first to understand that it’s not true, “just because we read it on the Internet.”

I have a friend and former colleague who I highly respect for her marketing skills and aptitude. We’re Facebook friends and last week she posted an excellent infographic. The topic dealt with reading so it piqued my interest. The statistics on readers were amazing – 57% of books go unfinished. My first thought was “excellent blog topic.” My second thought – “I need to verify this stuff.”

Here is the infographic – but before you copy, paste and repost- read my findings.

Book reading

Great stuff right?

Well Robert Brewer thought so when he came upon these statistics from The Jenkins Group. He did exactly what I would do, he created a great infographic. Unlike me, however, he didn’t verify his source. The infographic gained wide popularity. Readers wanted more and they wanted to see what other gems the study might offer. Mr. Brewer called representatives from the Jenkins Group to inquire…and they backed away from the findings. It seems that the “statistics” they quoted came from the owner, Mr. Jenkins. They couldn’t pin down the exact methods, the study, or basically anything to support these interesting claims. My guess— it was a marketing piece. The Jenkins Group is a publishing company. Mr Brewer has since retracted the use of the popular chart and replaced it with one based on a verifiable survey. Which of course is far less interesting because the truth is sometimes boring.

The funny thing is that the damage is already done. My educated friend posted it two years after it was retracted. It’s the Internet after all and things tend to be passed around and never disappear—like fake celebrity deaths, Big Foot and Slender Man. As writers and bloggers, however, I believe we have a little bit more responsibility than our Facebook friends. We have more than enough tools at our disposal to check our facts and our myths. For 5 dollars a month you can have on-line access to Encyclopedia Britannica instead of Wikepedia, and you can get dictionaries, thesauruses, and grammar guides for free. All a small price to ensure that your words have credibility and your readers’ trust is well placed.


4 replies »

  1. As I read parts of this aloud to my family from the “pedia” section…
    Daughter: Well…when’s the last time you were lied to by an orchid?
    Husband: I’ll bet you didn’t come away with much, either.

    Even though I know (I KNOW I KNOW) not everything on the internet is true, I still fall for the statistics things at times. I’m quick to point people to Snopes when a story seems too extreme to be true—even when I’m in agreement with the point of view—but for some reason, percentages almost always sound valid.

    Like just the other day, someone was telling me about having 90% better karma if I commented on this blog…

  2. Well, I’m here for the 90% good Karma. The other 99% is for the valuable information in this post. Wait, is that supposed to add up properly, and are both points supposed to be related to each other? But Wiki said I can make stuff up… okay, never mind.

    I absolutely agree that we have a responsibility to our readers and to ourselves. If we take pride in our work, our words, and our legacy we have to make sure we do research. I think its best to verify our facts from resources we can hold in the highest regard, personally I prefer to have back up from guild-like associations. Don’t they have a team to verify that sort of stuff before publishing?

    Off to check on those 44 gems to see which ones I’m guilty of using…

    • I think 80% of the time it adds up almost 60% of the time. I do love me a good idiom though and I think my next post will be sprinkled with as many as I can find and all of them incorrect.

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