How To Create Your Writer’s Code Of Ethics
And Why You Should
If you’re an ethical writer, why do you need a written set of ethics?
It’s only recently that I codified my collection of rules. I had no formal set of principles to keep me in check for the first few years of my writing life.
I had always kept a few unspoken rules in my head. That’s better than not having any at all, but it lacks the enforcement power of the written word. When you relegate principles to the back of your mind, you follow them as long as it’s convenient. When you put them on paper, you commit yourself to live by them. It pains us to break commitments, especially to ourselves.
I’ll share my list with you and then offer some guidelines on how to create rules that work for you and your writing. You won’t agree with everything I have on my list, and that’s fine. Craft principles that support you, your work and your conscience.
My List Of Ethics
If you must speak poorly of someone, use an alias
This rule should be a given, but in today’s call out culture, I need to state it explicitly. It’s too easy to get sucked into the vortex of mob mentality where everyone piles on the vitriol.
Life experiences about people who say or do stupid and insensitive things provide great fodder for stories and endless entertainment for your readers. It fires up crowds and wins praise from those who agree with you. It’s just not me.
I can convince myself of my moral superiority and rationale to exact justice. I’m no different than anyone else. And that’s precisely why I need this as part of my code of ethics.
Avoid publicly complimenting other writers
I know. This rule sounds crazy. Writers do it all the time. I’m aware that I’m in the extreme minority. I appreciate and enjoy recognition from others. Everyone does.
I admire many writers, and if I give a shout out to one, I would feel obligated to do the same for everyone, which would be impractical. That means I would need to decide who to include and who to exclude.
Maybe it comes from some latent childhood trauma of being left out of schoolyard games, but I don’t want anyone I admire to feel left out. If I want to recognize someone, I’ll comment on their story or send a private message. It lacks the adrenalin rush of the public virtual high five, but it’s the best I can do. My lack of shout outs is not a sign of disrespect, shallowness, or snobbery. It’s a desire to avoid the why not me silent response of those who might feel slighted.
Be respectful of commenters, even mean ones
It pains me to show respect to assholes, but I find a way. There are two ways in which I apply this rule.
First, I don’t curate funny, rude or nonsensical comments and then satirize them in stories. I’ll admit that I often read stories like these. It’s like a dessert cart at a nice restaurant. It’s hard to resist the chocolate cake when someone shoves it in your face.
When someone does act disrespectfully, I’ll either ignore it or thank them for their comments and move on. I once had a follower who used to private message me with advice. I can’t tell you what he wrote because that would violate my rule. I never responded and he eventually disappeared. That seems to be the best way to deal with the issue.
Be respectful of my readers’ time
It’s sad, but I need to remind myself. Every writer is prone to self-indulgence. My quirky, irrelevant thoughts might interest some of my readers, but it would likely bore or distract most of them. As a reader, I typically skim through these passages to get to the meaty part.
My first draft often contains quirky and amusing information that’s irrelevant to the topic. If I’m recounting a discussion with a friend during lunch, I only include the salient points. My reader doesn’t need to know what I ate or the annoying manner in which the waiter refilled my water glass.
Condense. Condense. Condense.
Leave out irrelevant information. Respect your reader’s time by communicating only what he or she needs to know. In Dan Brown’s masterclass on writing, he advises to print out the irrelevant, but loved passage and hang it up on your refrigerator. I’ve never felt the need to do that, but it’s always in the back of my mind.
Take responsibility for failure
It’s easy to blame a non-performing story on timing, slipping through the cracks or anything other than you. Accept that your hard work failed. Then celebrate. Why? Because you learned something that doesn’t interest your audience. You learned what does not work. There is value in that.
Be honest with yourself. Maybe your idea wasn’t well thought out or lacked clarity. Sometimes it takes two or three attempts to crystallize an idea into a reader-friendly form.
Create your list
Now that you’ve seen mine let’s work on yours. How do you pick and choose what to put in your list?
First, keep your list short. I have five rules in mine. Following five is easy. Try to avoid qualifiers or exceptions in your rules. You dilute the power of your directive if you tack on exceptions: unless, except when, or but only if.
If you’re going to add exceptions to your rules, keep it to a minimum, and make the exceptions as narrow as possible. Absolutes are almost impossible in the real world, but it’s something we can strive to achieve.
With this constraint in mind, you can ideat your code of ethics.
Let’s keep this is as simple as possible. From these two questions below, you will develop your list. Pare it down to no more than five.
What rules do I already follow most if not all of the time?
Maybe you follow an unspoken rule to respond or at least acknowledge every comment. An activist writer might want to call out injustices as he or she sees them no matter the consequences. That rule wouldn’t work for me, but we’re all different. We have various reasons for writing and unique lenses through which we see the world.
What guidelines would I like to follow but don’t?
Think about what’s important to you. Rephrase the question into something more specific.
How do you act, speak and treat people in the real world (outside of your writing)? Do you have standards you live by? Are there stories you wouldn’t want a family member to see? Why not?
Answers to these questions can help you articulate abstract thoughts and beliefs.
Be careful not to adapt rules from the real world that will handcuff your writing. Your list of ethics should be firm but practical.
Codifying your list of ethics does not mean you will never break any of your rules. You’re a human being. You’re not perfect. But creating a reasonable number of standards, putting them on paper, and hanging it above your computer will increase the odds you act and write in a manner that supports who you are and what you believe.