What Is Your Responsibility As A Writer?

August 28, 2008

I’ve been giving my responsibility as a writer a bit of thought. A couple of days ago, someone told me that one of my articles and the discussion that followed it, had helped them make an important personal decision.

And that’s great, if it was the right decision. But what if it wasn’t? I would hate to think I’d written something that could potentially harm another person.

The other day, I was reading a comment thread on writing. And someone pointed out that many bloggers don’t have any actually experience in what they’re writing about. They just rehash what others have said and add their own twist. The general consensus was that it’s ok to do that. After all, that’s what a lot of writers do. But is it really ok?

On this blog, I write about business and life, because I want to help folk start a business that fits with the lifestyle they want to lead. That’s important, because we don’t all want the same things. But I would hate to be doing this if I had no business experience at all.

Trouble is - my experiences and opinions differ from the next person’s. What works for me, might not work for you. Also, none of us have all the answers - we’re all on a journey together, helping each other along. And thinking about this has really made me question what I write.

What do you think? Do you worry that you’ll write something that could potentially harm someone? Are there some things we should avoid writing about altogether, if we haven’t experienced them ourselves?

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32 Responses to “What Is Your Responsibility As A Writer?”

  1. Vered on August 28th, 2008 4:34 am

    I have a Content Disclaimer on my legal page.

    It says:

    MOMGRIND™ is a blog Site. The Site publishes rumors, opinions and speculations, in addition to accurately reported information. Information on the site may contain errors or inaccuracies; VDL, Inc. does not make any warranty as to the correctness or reliability of the site’s content.

    Yes, it’s standard legal verbiage, but I think it sums it up pretty well.

    Vered’s last blog post..Would You Eat Spicy Chocolate?

  2. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 5:06 am

    Hi Vered - I knew you’d be able to share some advice on the legal stuff.

    I had a disclaimer on here but it wasn’t so professional. Would it be ok to use similar wording to you? I trust you cos you’re a lawyer (I don’t think I’ve ever said that to a lawyer before!)

    By the way - I’ve just realised something . You’ve trademarked MomGrind and incorporated yourself already. You really are cautious. Would I be right in guessing that I don’t need to TM my blog name because it’s my real name? Or would it still be smart, in order to protect the branding?

  3. Mike Goad on August 28th, 2008 6:10 am

    I guess my answer — at least for me — is to “write responsibly.”

    How often have you read an article in the media on something that you have personal knowledge — and they got it wrong?

    All too often, as far as I’m concerned.

    Mike Goad’s last blog post..From Our Porch

  4. Barbara Swafford on August 28th, 2008 7:46 am

    Hi Catherine,

    I personally think we have a responsibility as bloggers to write as close to the truth as possible. What we write is published online and like any other type of published media, our readers expect it to be accurate.

    I do agree what works for us may not work for the next person, but if we can help them to become an informed “consumer”, we’re doing a good job.

    I think we also have to remember that our writings are being read by more people than we realize. Although we may feel like we know those in our communities, it’s not just them we’re writing for. I say write responsibly and build a reputation as an accurate resource (for our visitors)

    Disclaimer: This may not apply to all types of blogs. :)
    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..Self Promotion - From The Archives

  5. Kelly@SHE-POWER on August 28th, 2008 7:52 am

    I think we do have an obligation to our readers to be as informed and truthful as possible and to some extent that is why I don’t do many “advice” posts because I’m not that comfortable telling people I have all the answers. if you look at how I write, I write about many things but I make no bones about the fact that it’s my opinion and my experience. This is especially important for my self development posts. These are always written in a “This is how I do it” or “This is what worked for me” kind of way.

    I think you do just fine here.

    Kelly :)
    Kelly@SHE-POWER’s last blog post..When Kindness Becomes Stupidity

  6. Joanna Young on August 28th, 2008 7:53 am

    Cath, I think we need to take responsibility for our words and to make it clear what the basis of our authority is. I’d say you’re pretty clear here about the difference between things you’ve experienced, things you’re wondering about, things you’d suggest and things you’re offering as business ‘advice’.

    I do think those who read also have a responsibility for their own actions. Yes, your words might have made a difference but the person who’s decided to do something on the back of them is the person who’s made that decision.


  7. Alex Fayle on August 28th, 2008 7:57 am

    I don’t apply for many blogging jobs because I know I don’t have the expertise, and I wouldn’t feel authentic.

    What people do with your information is their choice. On our blogs we offer our thoughts for free - there’s no exchange of money, so therefore we have no responsibility for their actions.

    When we sell information products, however, their is an exchange of money for goods so we do become somewhat responsible. Because I will be offering self-development workshops, I’m very careful to add in the fine print that the workshops are informational only and that the students should seek professional assistance in cases of big decisions.

    I don’t know if that’s enough, but will check that out. When I used to do live group workshops, I needed errors and omissions insurance, but I don’t know how that works with Internet-based workshops. Thanks for the reminder! I’m going to go email my insurance broker immediately.


    Alex Fayle’s last blog post..Are you a Pooh-Bear?

  8. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 8:18 am

    Hi Barbara - I see what you’re saying. I guess that as well as shopping round for other stuff - people shop around for information to, when they’re making decisions on what to do.

    That’ a good point - re: remembering who we’re writing for. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that many others outside of our discussion group are also reading what we’re saying.

    Thanks Kelly - I see what you mean - as long as we’re not saying - “It Has To Be Done This Way”, we should be fine.

    I’m still thinking about your post last night. That was really scary.

    Thanks Joanna - I see what you mean - the reader also has to take responsibility and decide what is best for them.

    I’m glad you’re back by the way. I’ve seen your pic all over the place the last couple of days, with people welcoming you back. Hope you’re getting settled in your new home ok.

    Hi Alex - That is a great point. And I guess, in any kind of workshop setting, you can’t guarantee that something is going to work for a particular person. I guess it all depends on them and what they do with what they’ve learned.

    Insurance is important. I don’t know anything about errors and omissions insurance though. Mind you, here I am saying business insurance is important and I’m still waiting to be paid out on a claim for something that happened over a year ago!

  9. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 8:24 am

    Hi Mike - Askimet really loves grabbing you for some reason. You’d think it would get the hint when I keep dragging you out of there.

    I know what you mean. I guess I’ve read articles in many types of media that have been totally misleading or badly researched - so it’s certainly not just confined to the Internet.

  10. louise on August 28th, 2008 8:32 am

    On my blog I like to feel free to just have my opinion and thats one of the reasons its anonymous, but I still try and be responsible and accurate when it’s factual stuff, but I need a place to just express myself sometimes.

    One of my frustrations in my job is the incredible amount of crap out there on the internet that is written by people who have no idea what they are talking about. In the world of health this is really quite dangerous, and I’ve seen some worrying stuff.

    Thats one of the reasons I enjoy doing article marketing, I can write accurate, safe information in an area I have expertise in and get paid for it.

    louise’s last blog post..Budget Buster: I need glasses!

  11. Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach on August 28th, 2008 9:29 am

    Hi Cath,

    I confess to being bemused by:

    “And that’s great, if it was the right decision. But what if it wasn’t? I would hate to think I’d written something that could potentially harm another person.”

    Since when should you take ownership over how others behave?

    You’re sharing your insights and experiences and advice as best you see fit. I believe your ‘responsibility’ to readers stop right there; sure, you can proactively choose to continue dialogues offline etc., but you do NOT bear responsibility for how others choose to act.

    ‘course, I’m assuming that you’re writing without any intention to scam, of course (I can just see now other commenters saying well, what about people who lie to get results? etc.etc.etc.).

    People are lucky to be able to read your words. Period, end of discussion. What THEY choose to do with them….it’s their choice….not yours.

    Best wishes, Barbara

    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach’s last blog post..Storming the gates of HELL , otherwise known as teaching kids boundaries

  12. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 9:43 am

    Hi Barbara - that’s true - I guess folk have to make their own decisions. I just worry when they make such huge ones after reading one blog post. For all they know - I could be a complete basket case - I’m not by the way. But folk who’ve just landed here don’t know that.

    Good point re: folks who advise with the intention to scam though. I just read about someone who actually stands to lose $2million to one of those Ponzi scams. They can’t have done a whole lot of research beforehand I guess.

  13. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 9:49 am

    Hi Louise - I guess that if people want to hang you for your opinion - they’re only hanging your anonymous self then.

    I know where you’re coming from on the health issues thing. That’s one of my pet hates too. I’ve seen some terrible advice given - especially on mental health issues. I think a lot of that comes from the common misuse of the word “depression” though.

    And some of those diet advisors should be flogged in public. I don’t mean you by the way Barbara L. It’s the ones that get folk on these fad diets that really bug the life out of me.

  14. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 10:30 am

    Hi Rita - I think my worries began when I started writing about life as well as business. I made the decision because there were so many overlaps - problems in life could affect your business and vice versa.

    Trouble is, often I’m still writing from experience but I don’t know if the decisions I’ve made are the right ones. Also, a lot of that stuff is just my opinion and it often isn’t shared by the majority.

    I’m totally with you on the fiction thing - people need to spell it out. I was once reading a fairly ordinary blog. It was one of those typical mommy blogs - more like an every day diary type thing.

    I read a post one day - it sounded the same as the others. Then I got to the end and discovered it was a fiction post. But it sounded almost the same as the other ones. It was really misleading.

  15. Brad Shorr on August 28th, 2008 11:47 am

    Cath, For a business oriented blog, I think it’s essential to differentiate facts from opinions. If I’m going to make a statement of fact, I should check for accuracy before publishing, and in some cases cite my sources. On the other hand, when it comes to stating opinion, we ought to say what we think and let the chips fall. As long as we’re clear about saying, this is my opinion, my take, my interpretation, etc., people may disagree but will not be mislead. If you express opinions on a topic you know nothing about or have limited exposure to, you’re “leading with your chin” and inviting harsh (and possibly deserved) criticism. I have a hard time understanding why a blogger would want to do that. I have a hard enough time producing decent material on topics I do know about! :)
    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..Twittering Away My Time and Other Social Media Myths, by Karen Swim

  16. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 12:15 pm
    Thanks Rita - I would hate to be one of those business writing machines. And I think many people make the mistake of choosing a business that won’t give them the life they want, because they read that sort of stuff.

    I used to choose role models who were making a lot of money. It didn’t occur to me at the time that if I did what they did, I might also wind up with 3 heart attacks, 5 divorces and a miserable life.

    Hi Brad - linking to the original source is a good idea. At least if they got it wrong, it covers your back a bit.

    As you say - you really are inviting bad feedback if you don’t know what you’re talking about. I remember reading a post where this guy was raving about what a great business his friend had and encouraging others to do the same thing.

    But the business had a profit margin of only 2% and I quickly chipped in as he seemed to be trying to lead a few people down a dangerous path.

  17. chris on August 28th, 2008 12:15 pm

    When I teach often get preachy because I consider my students as my own children. But when I preach, I make sure that I share what I’ve been through so that they know that I practice what I preach. The same goes with my blog. I don’t talk about or give advise on something that I don’t know personally.

    I once remarked to my wife that I want to blog about How To Make Money Online or Productivity because I can get a ton of readers. As always, since she knows me so well, she said I will have a difficult time writing about something I’m not passionate about.

    So, I took her advice.

    Than you so much for the link.

    chris’s last blog post..The First Step Out

  18. Scott McIntyre on August 28th, 2008 12:17 pm

    You make a very good point here, Cath.

    The blogosphere is populated by self-appointed gurus in all topics.

    I guess my view is that the writer’s responsibility is to share what they know as the basis of the content they deliver.

    Then, an appropriate background of other opinions and thoughts should go into the writing. Even better is when readers share their own experiences within the comments section.

    I think it is crucial for the writer to always give alternative options for people to consider.

    It is never a good idea to suggest any one particular course of action as the only one worth following.

    Even in the rest of life, no one can ever truly know the exact situation that the other person is in.

    Only the individual concerned knows what factors are present in their life which will affect what they should do.

    Should a reader implement a single piece of advice and it goes wrong, the risk is that they blame the writer rather than being able to accept personal responsibility.

    I have had quite a few employment and voluntary roles which have involved counselling. The fundamental principle is that the counsellor should equip the individual to be able to make decisions for themselves.

    This is only really achieved by providing the person with as many options as is reasonable to allow them to make an informed choice.

  19. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 12:18 pm

    Hi Chris - You’re welcome. Your idea of inviting people to be immortalized for only $10 - is a genius one by the way.

    And I’m glad you listened to your wife - I really enjoy reading it and you don’t come across as preachy at all. So, you must be a good teacher.

  20. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 12:27 pm

    Hi Scott - Sorry - Askimet is still eating you. I don’t know what you’ve done to offend it.

    I like your point about making folk aware that there’s other options which may be better for them. And it’s always great when those options are discussed in the comments section.

    Even in things such as marketing, different approaches are right for different people. Some people just aren’t comfortable doing particular marketing activities. And there’s so many different things they could be doing, that they shouldn’t waste their time worrying about doing things they hate.

    I like the way you use counselling as a comparison to blogging. And I guess it’s true in some respects - we need to lead our readers towards making the right decisions for themselves.

  21. Mrs. Micah on August 28th, 2008 1:22 pm

    I see my responsibility as two-fold. First, not to write about or recommend anything that I wouldn’t do myself. In this case “wouldn’t do” is more in the general sense…since I won’t save for college right now because I don’t have kids, but I would if I did.

    Second, is to be open to correction. I know some bloggers who think it’s inauthentic to correct the post with data from the comments. I think that if the commeners are right, then one should correct the post ASAP.

    As for the rest, I write from personal experience and opioion and I hope my readers recognize that. I also hope at least some of my experience and opinion will help them make more informed decisions. But as long as I’m not giving out (what I believe to be) bad advice on the blog, then I think I’m doing ok.

  22. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 4:26 pm

    Hi MM - recommending something you wouldn’t do yourself is quite dangerous isn’t it? Especially if you have good reasons for not doing that particular thing.

    That’s interesting on correcting the post with comments if you’ve got it wrong to begin with - so long as you know the commenter has got it right I suppose.

    I think you do help your readers to make informed choices. I certainly trust whatever you say because I know you wouldn’t just recommend doing any old thing for some financial incentive.

  23. cathlawson on August 28th, 2008 5:41 pm

    Hi Rita - yes they were. I think that number of heart attacks and divorces would be enough to kill a person off.

  24. Davina on August 28th, 2008 9:14 pm

    Hi Cath. Very good question!

    I have to agree with Joanna that those who read have a responsibility for their own actions. I prefer not to give advice on my blog.

    I don’t believe anyone has all the answers. To me life is about experience and collecting experience and learning from it. I enjoy reading similar posts with different perspectives. It keeps me flexible and open to other possibilities. I guess I’m an adventurer at heart.

    I share personal thoughts and insights, and invite readers to try them on or share theirs for others to try on. I feel it keeps us curious and playful and when I allow… it keeps me from getting too serious about things.

    Davina’s last blog post..Does Misery Really Love Company?

  25. Al at 7P on August 29th, 2008 11:55 am

    Hi Cath - I’ve learned that people are responsible for their own actions. Think of the flipside - what if someone was indeed going down the wrong path and they ignore our warnings? I stressed too much in the past worrying about these things and had to learn to let it go.

    We do have the responsibility of giving proper advice, but ultimately the individual is responsible for their own actions.

    Al at 7P’s last blog post..The Criminally-Minded Approach for Achieving Goals

  26. cathlawson on August 29th, 2008 12:02 pm

    Hi Davina - a lot of folk are saying that it is the readers responsiblity too, which is very true I guess.

    I like your personal thoughts and insights. It’s good not to get too serious about things.

    Hi Al - that’s a good point. Someone could just as easy ignore what we say when we write and get into trouble that way.

    I love your criminal post by the way - it’s excellent.

  27. Mark Dykeman on September 3rd, 2008 3:39 pm

    Hi Cath, just found your site via Remarkablogger. I’m also a new subscriber.

    Your post touches upon on one of my biggest insecurities as a blogger: I’m learning as I go. I don’t blog very much at all about personal or professional life - I’m more like an explorer who describes what he sees or thinks. However, it can be very intimidating to write about something when you’re clearly not an expert in that field.

    At the same time, we learn by doing.

    Good points as well, earlier in the comment stream, about the value in using disclaimers.

    Great blog!

    Mark Dykeman’s last blog post..Social media magicians give away their best tricks

  28. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 6:02 pm

    Hi Mark - thanks for subscribing. As you say - we learn by doing. None of us have all the answers. And some things we blog about are just our opinion anyway.

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