It is said that with great power comes great responsibility. Most of us freelance writer types don’t really have to worry about that, right? Most of us aren’t engaged in projects that are likely to change the world. We’re not speech-writing for President Obama. (I sometimes don’t think anyone is, but that’s another story.) We’re not committing to paper the edicts of a new religion that will brainwash an entire nation.
So, do we really have to worry about what we write? Should we be overly concerned with how our words fall from our thoughts onto the keyboard?
I would say we do. Okay, so you’re not Obama’s speechwriter, but your words still have power. Words are the most powerful weapon on this earth. They can divide nations, set continents aflame, or they can bring peace where none existed. They can tear families apart and bring strangers together in lifelong union. They can heal or destroy, and do everything in between.
A few years ago I was reporting for ITT, a large U.S. defence company. One of the stories concerned a competitor who had been contracted by the U.S. government to build an astonishingly huge number of new warplanes. At a press conference on the subject, one of the top officials in the USAF was asked why so many planes were needed. The total cretin – for, despite his rank, I can only assume that was what he was – replied: “Have you seen how big China is?” Seven little words, but the message they conveyed was monumental: We are preparing for a time when we may have to bomb the shit out of China. Awesome. A diplomatic tour-de-force.
I know we’re not all involved with delivering words at that level, and of course we’re not all as stupid as the top-ranking military minds of this world, but the words we use still have power.
It doesn’t matter what you are writing about, if someone else reads it they will be affected. You may change their views or reinforce them, but a person cannot unread what they’ve read. At the very least you may anger them because they spent time reading your words when you had nothing whatsoever of any import to say.
Freelance writers who write for public consumption must take responsibility. They must accept that their words may be taken at face value and gobbled up. Most freelancers today will have written SEO articles – essays designed to bring traffic to a website so that goods can be sold. If your article succeeds in this aim, you have influenced another person to part with their cash. Nothing wrong with that, it happens every day.
But here’s the kicker: if your words are wrong, you may also cause that person to part with far more than cash.
I don’t intend to get too far into this, but consider the pharmaceutical companies who have for years convinced you that you must take their products to survive. Then search – if you are so inclined – for the vast amount of evidence that, actually, you were lied to, that the products they purvey as health-enhancing are actually killing you. Consider cancer: we were told thirty-odd years ago that we had to smother ourselves with sunscreen or we would all die of skin cancer (the sun being such an unnatural part of our environment, of course). So we started to do this and, since then, cases of skin cancer have gone through the roof. Now we are starting to get the truth. Most commercial sunscreens include ingredients that are carcinogenic – that enter your bloodstream and cause the very cells you are trying to protect to mutate. In truth, the Vitamin D derived from sensible exposure to the sun is known to protect against over 30 different cancers, including … wait for it … skin cancer. And don’t even get me started on the treatments that destroy the one thing that keeps cancer at bay every day of our lives: the immune system.
Rant over. So, for the freelance writer, what does all this mean? I think this:
- We need to be honest within the strictures of the writing project. And if that’s not at all possible, we need to dump the project.
- We need to research our facts. I don’t mean Google for “facts” by other people who haven’t bothered ascertaining the truth; I mean really dig for credible evidence that backs up our opinions.
- We need to be coherent. In writing, a badly-made point is unprofessional. At worst, it can convey an entirely wrong impression and cause harm.
- We need to learn our trade. If we want our readers to take us seriously, we need to look like we at least have a proper command of the English language.
Before you start your next writing assignment, think about the impact your words may have, and craft them accordingly. Always remember how great is the power you are wielding.