It’s funny that a profession that often prides itself on telling the truth is tainted by more than a few liars. Journalists often claim to pursue the truth at all costs. Non-fiction writers are, by definition, supposed to be writing the truth. Fiction writers spout off about finding “the truth” in their stories. Almost every kind of writer espouses some sort of devotion to the truth. Yet every year, more and more writers are caught lying. Whether it’s passing off someone else’s work as your own (plagiarism) or faking reviews on Amazon, there’s a lot of lying going on.
It would seem like common sense that you shouldn’t lie. Yet in the crowded, competitive, demanding world of writing, too many people take shortcuts in their efforts to get ahead of the pack. But lying in your writing can destroy your career, even if you don’t rely on writing to make a living. When I was in graduate school, I knew someone who faked his entire dissertation. All of the interviews, transcripts, and statistics were fake. He couldn’t find the data and people to support the “ground breaking” conclusion he was trying to draw so he made it all up. He got caught and tossed out of school. His future career in that field, and all of the teaching and researching he hoped to do were flushed down the toilet.
Lying in your writing can destroy your career.
Granted, that’s a pretty spectacular case of career suicide, but there are many others. Remember James Frey who made up a memoir and got taken down by Oprah? Or Jonah Leher who faked quotes attributed to Bob Dylan (among quite a few other infractions). Or Jayson Blair who fabricated almost every aspect of his stories for The New York Times? While some of these notorious liars have gone on to resurrect their careers, don’t think for one minute that it would be as easy for the average Joe to return to successful work after such a debacle.
So, since it doesn’t seem to be obvious to some, what constitutes lying? Take a look. (And don’t say that these are genius marketing techniques, or ways to set yourself apart from the crowd. They’re lies, pure and simple.)
- Faking statistics and data. It’s not okay to say that 30% of people agree with your position if there is no hard data to support that conclusion. You don’t get to make things up based on “gut feelings” or because you really want to write a spectacular article. Neither do you get to interview four of your friends and when three of them agree with your premise, report that as a 75% majority.
- Faking quotes. If someone didn’t say it, you don’t get to put it in their mouth anyway. You also can’t take quotes out of context. Just because your point is better made if you leave out the last half of the quote doesn’t mean you get to use it that way. You have to report quotes accurately and keep them within the context in which they were uttered.
- Calling fiction non-fiction. If you made it up, it’s fiction. If it’s “based on” your life but not a factual recounting of your life, it’s fiction and not a memoir. If you write about an event that never happened or things that were never said, it’s fiction. Never pass something you made up as something that really happened.
- Passing off old work as new. Yes, reporters and magazine writers repurpose old work all the time. They take that parenting article about camping with the kids and re-slant it so that it works for an outdoors magazine. It means that you can reuse research and save some time when writing the article. As long the work and wording is new, this is okay. What isn’t okay is repeating the earlier work word for word. Editors pay for new content. Finding out that the piece they just published has already appeared in another publication, verbatim, isn’t going to make them happy. Especially if you sold it as original work.
- Plagiarism. This is stealing other people’s work and passing it off as your own. This is never okay and it’s a lesson that should have been learned in elementary school. If you use someone else’s work, you have to give proper credit to the original author.
- Writing fake reviews of your work. This has become a rampant problem on sites like Amazon. Authors create fake accounts to give glowing reviews of their own work. It’s an effort to push their book to the top, to make it stand out amidst all the other books. It’s harder than you think, though, to craft believable “voices” for your reviews. They will all end up sounding the same. Worse, if your book is receiving scads of terrible reviews and then you’ve got these fifty five-star reviews, someone’s going to figure out that you’re shilling your own work. Also, don’t pay for positive reviews. It’s fine to request reviews, but no ethical reviewer will take money in exchange for their opinion.
- Altering reality. We often wish that things had happened more dramatically than they did. Sometimes writers “embellish” a story to make it seem more dramatic or world-altering than it was. Really they’re just stretching the facts and that’s not okay. If it was boring when it happened, then you either need to report it that way or find something more exciting to cover. You’re writing a non-fiction piece, not a screenplay. Adding in explosions, deaths, and drama is lying.
- Pretending to be somewhere you aren’t. You cannot pretend to be filing stories from Iraq if you’re in Cleveland. If you want to report “from” a region, you’d better be there.
- Doctoring photographs. Okay, a little Photoshopping isn’t a bad thing. Touching up colors, etc. is acceptable. What’s not acceptable is putting people into photos who weren’t there, or capturing “action” that never happened so you can report on some unbelievable event.
It’s not worth the risk to lie. In this day and age it’s incredibly easy to get caught. Everything can be cross-checked on the Internet or with a quick phone call or Tweet. No matter what you think you’re accomplishing by lying, or how good you feel that you’re pulling one over on people, sooner or later it will come to an end and you will end up with no creditability and no career. So just don’t do it.
(Photo courtesy of Scarletina)