In the emotional chaos that followed the last election, I wrote a little piece about how important words can be and how we need to take more responsibility for them ('our words matter now more than ever').
It was something I cared deeply about, after seeing words used badly throughout 2016 for political gain at the expense of reason and humanity. Now we're a couple of months into 2017 and the world has turned into Back to the Future II's alternate timeline - Marty has seemingly lost the Sports Almanac for good, idiot Biff is running things from his tower, and the future we're being forced towards looks pretty bloody awful.
As good friend and writer, Tony Elliott, recently commented: "words have been wielded with destructive and destabilising effect of late". And this seemed to be an opinion shared by many others out there.
Which got me thinking: what do other writers think about our collective responsibility to do better with words? How can we wield these words in such a way as to address this onslaught of fearmongering, meaningless slogans, and alt-wordage we find ourselves up against? How can our words be a force for good - and how can we encourage others to do better with theirs to help fight the terrible future being laid out before us?
To find the answers, I went and asked a whole bunch of amazing professional writers what they thought.
And they were generous enough to offer a few wise words.
"It’s important that writers be true to who they are, whatever their political beliefs. Not speaking up for fear of reprisals is no way to live, or write. No one wants a country where intellectual voices are silent. That being stated––be polite, otherwise your message can get lost or ignored merely by your tone. And make sure you’re not reacting to fake news. It’s astounding how many people actually believed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-ring out of a pizza parlor."
New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
"I feel the number one responsibility writers have is to keep using their words and speaking out. How that looks will vary based on everyone’s belief systems, personalities, comfort level, etc. but for myself, that means speaking out about things like unity, standing up for each other, and a refusal to give in to hate—even if that hate is legislated by our supposed leaders. And I mean standing up for the rights of all humans, not just the ones in my country. As the pictures poured in from Women’s Marches, not just in the U.S., but around the globe, it was really emotional to feel that support from the whole world. Though I feel that we in the US have some dark days ahead, I also have hope and determination. This quote by Mahatma Gandhi sums up my feelings about this 'Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.' I will not be silent, and hope citizens everywhere will join me."
Dr Kristi Helvig
Author of the Burn Out series and clinical psychologist
(Read more of Kristi’s thoughts in her brilliant post: On Writing, Star Wars, and Politics.)
"Writers write. It’s what we do. Published or unpublished, successful or struggling, we write. We are not politicians or policy-makers, judges or lawyers – we labour away, alone, on words which may well go unread. Failure is an integral part of the writing life. What difference can we make? Only this: to write is to engage, viscerally, with the vapours of an impossible dream. To write is to persist. To relight the candle Every Single Bloody Time. And it is our persistent belief that equality, freedom and decency are dreams worth striving for that will keep those dreams burning in these darkening times."
Author of The Ship
"Writing in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny argues that we should call this the age of bullshit, not ‘Post-Truth’. While lying is strategic and purposeful, she argues, bullshitters aim to undermine the whole concept of truth, leaving people adrift in uncertainty.
Is that what copywriters do, at least partly? It’s an uncomfortable question. I believe we simply try to present the best truth, or the best side of the truth. If we lie, it’s usually by omission or exaggeration, not outright fabrication. However, we may still have a role to play in ‘being the change we want to see’. Maybe we can write more honest campaigns, so brands embody greater honesty. By ‘honest’, I mean copy that dares to state unspoken truths; I don’t mean merely claiming the value of honesty or affecting an ‘honest’ tone of voice.
In terms of our personal writings and interactions, I think we need to guard against playing the bullshit game, even as opponents. In my view, the Brexit vote and Trump’s election were secured on rampantly false promises. Yet ridiculing or critiquing those lies will only get us so far, particularly after the fact (or after the lie). If you have a literary or wordy outlook, it’s easy to get sucked into analysing the text itself rather than the outcomes. We can prove to each other endlessly that certain things are false, or inconsistent, or just silly, but we are still engaging with them, and we’re not breaking into the filter bubbles of those who disagree with us.
What we need to do now, I believe, is to re-articulate liberal ideals – unity, peace, tolerance – in clear and simple ways, so we’re acting rather than reacting. We’ve seen that untruth can beat truth. Now we have to show that there are ideals stronger than both."
Copywriter and co-founder of the Professional Copywriters' Network
"I think we all need to take responsibility for getting our facts straight. For doing our research, double checking and backing up what we write with statistics, results or some kind of evidence.
In the SEO world, there are a lot of guarantees thrown around that have absolutely no basis in reality. While in the copywriting world, clients often want us to make bold claims, oversell, exaggerate claims and make ludicrous guarantees. I think we need to push back on this.
We don’t need to use bombast and tacky sales tactics to make products sound great. We just need to clearly explain features and benefits, provide proof and talk to customers like they’re real human beings."
Copywriter and SEO Trainer
"The Buzzfeed-ready clickbaity headlines at the core of fake news, etc are based on headline formulas from old-school ads, the most common one being, "They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started to Play." The problem is that those were ads, not news. We're using ad formulas now as headlines for news because advertising and the news are conflated and measured on the same thing: clicks.
Of course, newspapers have always wanted to sell newspapers, and selling ads has always been at the core of that. Yet - at the risk of coloring the past too rosily - the main goal for the newsmedia was still to deliver supported, well-sourced news and to do so impartially; a headline might be optimized to grab attention but always responsibly. The news business should be very different from the traffic/ad business. When they merge (even if the NYT is nothing like fake news sites), the push is to optimize for clicks over engagement and stimulation over thoughtfulness.
Professional writers have historically not been on the wrong side of social responsibility, by and large. Is it their job to fix a problem they didn't create? We all know there's a deeper problem that we all need to fix: a global appetite for junk. Perhaps it starts with us all - yeah, even you reading this - not rewarding clickbait with our clicks."
Copywriter and co-founder of Copy Hackers and Airstory
"Writers have work to do for both the revolution and evolution. Our current work needs to be persuasive and potent, and we need to speak up in everything from novels to tweets with a ringing clarity right now. But our power also lies in the active shaping of the future—of creating something better than what already exists. It’s critical for us to think big thoughts and dream new worlds and ways of being into reality. That is no small task! It’s tough to toggle between inspired and outraged on a daily (hourly?) basis, which is also why it’s critical that we take care of all parts of ourselves while we’re doing this work. Don’t be afraid to put on your oxygen mask first so you can then lead others to safety."
Author of Of Scars and Stardust
"I would say two things: First, let's remember that our communities, our nations, our world is bigger than the folks that look like us and think like us. We have the opportunity - and responsibility - to ensure a diversity of background and thought in our work, to present a respectful picture of humanity that looks like it really is, not like we or others would like it to be.
Hand in hand with that, my other bit of advice is: Be not afraid. When you represent people of color, LBGTQ+, the economically disadvantaged and those of different religions, you will likely incur some pushback. And yes, when you portray folks who aren't any of those things, you may get some pushback from the other direction as well. That's something you have to weather in pursuit of that goal of a fuller picture of humanity.
As writers and storytellers, we have tremendous influence, whether we're writing novels, news articles, or even copy. Think critically about the picture your words are painting. Shoulder the responsibility well."
Michael J. Martinez
Author of The Daedalus Trilogy and MJ-12: Inception and journalist of 15 years
"I honestly don't know what the key responsibility for writers is or should be. There are so many problems, and all of them need urgent attention. I know for certain that we can't be quiet about the injustices we see. Of course, that should have always been the way, but for reasons I have a hard time trying to fathom, it wasn't. That has to change. Now. For certain. We have to take care of our fellow human beings. We have to listen and learn. We have to explore, and approach things from a new angle. Employ a different perspective.
Humanity, the art of taking care of your fellow man, just because you can, seems to have mostly disappeared. These days, it's more fulfilling to laugh at a person that's fallen over, rather than helping them back on their feet. That's tragic. I really hope that going forward, we use our voices to inject humanity back into society."
Author of Under Rose-Tainted Skies
"So many people fought and died for our right to have a voice. I fully believe it is our civic duty to voice our concerns in a responsible, respectful manner.Throughout history writers have often been part of the force that cut through to others and asked them think, to question what is happening in their world. They have the ability to show their readers different points of view and to tear down the boundaries between social/economic classes, race, religion, and sexual orientation. I strongly feel that is needed in today's world."
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Royal series, Flukes and more
"Words are powerful. Words can inspire. Words can inflict harm. It is imperative in these uncertain times that we, writers, people of influence, take care in what we say, and how we say it. The world needs hope. We should be the beacon of hope that sheds light where darkness has taken hold. The best way we can contribute is to create and imagine, spread your words of optimism in every corner of the earth. We have words, thus we possess the greatest power of all. Write on!"
Monica M. Hoffman
YA author and Communications Director with the Pitch Wars organisation
A HUGE thank you to all these fantastic writers for their words of wisdom. And to finish, a little input from the magnificent bestselling author and content genius Ann Handley, who was unable to contribute fully herself, but still took the time to offer her support and let me know about this wonderful article in The New Yorker by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which you should all go and read now.