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Writing candidly about other people

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better. - Anne Lamott

I hear a lot of stories. Some seem almost unbelievable. The horror that one human can inflict on another can be hard for me to grasp. Be it physical or emotional pain, most of us have a story. Careers or families destroyed, traumas endured, deceit, betrayal - stuff that should only happen in the movies. So it shouldn’t be surprising that every author I work with has the same question: how do I write about it?

Celebrities can leverage scandalous stories and tell-alls to grab tabloid headlines. But the rest of us need to employ a touch of discretion. As much as I would love to see authors take Anne Lamott’s advice and go at it with guns ablaze, it ain’t always that simple. We humans are a complex bunch. If you are planning to write candidly about other people in your book, consider these questions before you proceed.

  • Why is it important to include this story? Be clear on the purpose. If it shows your resilience, then we will write it in a way that showcases that aspect. But if revenge is driving you, it might be more trouble than it’s worth. Yes, legal trouble, too.

  • Will the person give you permission? Consider if the story will invade privacy, or hurt or anger the persons involved. Talk with the person first, if possible. I know, I know, it ain’t that simple.

  • Is it a fact-based or subjective story? Facts are facts, and you have a right to state facts. Subjective truth might be your impression of others at the time, your perspective of the situation, or who the person is through your eyes. Either way, it requires a tactful approach.

  • What is at stake? Will writing about the story damage your reputation, relationships, or career? How will it affect the success of your book? Is it worth the risk?

  • Is fiction an option? Sometimes fiction is the best solution. It provides the author with a buffer and creative license to change the actual events any way you wish.

Writing candidly about other people tells the reader as much about you as it does about the people you discuss. Maybe even more.

My take: Don’t write to make noise. Write to make a difference.


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