Beyond “write what you know”

Every once in a while, I come across something offensive.

I don’t, generally, offend easily. Mostly because I tend to avoid that which I know is going to be problematic. (Ahem, politics.)

But as an editor, and a reviewer, I don’t get to filter before I read. I am the filter. And that’s a strange responsibility.

On one hand, I need to offer the author the benefit of the doubt. I need to assume good intentions and consider the work’s merits.

On the other hand, I’m pissed off as hell!

In situations where I can get a second opinion, I do. When that’s not an option, I give myself time–to cool down, reconsider, look at it again. Reevaluate. Approach with a cooler head.

When it’s something I need to review, I have to come up with a measured, well-researched response, considering the author’s intention as well as my reaction. In most cases, the author’s intent is not to be inflammatory or offensive–usually it’s quite the opposite. The author is trying to be helpful, but is doing so without looking at all angles or considering viewpoints other than his/her own.

I represent the reader, and my job is to consider how different perspectives might approach the piece in question. If I think the author has written something potentially hurtful to some audiences, I’m going to say so in the kindest terms possible–again, because the author is usually blundering along with good intentions.

Nonetheless, the result is “the grossest thing ever.”

It’s impossible to guess how every single person in the world would interpret your work. But sharing it with a variety of people before submitting it, training yourself to consider many viewpoints, or listening to what people very different than you say about similar works will give you a head start.

  • Do your research. Especially about the group of people you’re trying to help. Do they want your help? Who else has offered, and what did those offerings look like? How does yours compare?
  • Know your limits. If you know what you’ve written is not for all cases–maybe there are some extreme situations that are beyond the scope of your piece–say so. It is even better to mention who you’re writing for, and who not.
  • Offer alternatives. It’s also beneficial to suggest alternatives to your own perspective in your piece, and the ways you agree or don’t with those alternatives, or where some readers might find more of what they’re looking for if you can’t provide it. Admitting you’re not the end-all be-all makes you seem well-researched and intelligent, not to mention truly helpful.

For my own writing, I take these instances (as I pace back and forth and try to come up with the right way to express ARRRGGHH) as lessons to remember to get out of my head sometimes. Come up for air. Read widely, and consider opinions other than my own and those closest to me. How might someone completely different from me interpret what I’ve written? How can I move forward instead of shutting down?

When we write beyond what we know, we risk offending the very readers we’re trying to reach. We can minimize the problem with a little research. Or we can stick only to our own experiences. But what fun is writing if you don’t get to explore?