Honesty is as important in writing as it is in other areas of life. Honesty is what makes fiction believable and nonfiction credible.
If you want readers to willingly suspend their disbelief, or give serious thought to something you’re showing them about the world, they must be able trust you at least a little. Without honesty, there can be no trust. This is why cheap narrative tricks and patently false accounts of reality turn people off.
Here are a few rules of thumb I use to keep my writing honest:
- I never publish something I know to be untrue.
- If I believe something to be true, but haven’t confirmed it, I make sure to be straight-up about the fact that I haven’t confirmed it.
- I make every effort to label opinions and statements of preference as such; I never state them as facts unless I do it by accident.
- Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. When I realize I’ve made one, I correct it. If the mistake unjustly harmed another person, I apologize to them and do what I can to make restitution.
- In fiction, I never allow characters to act against their own natures just to move the plot along.
- When I’m doing criticism, I make every effort to represent my sources accurately before I present my argument.
- I never intentionally twist words to score rhetorical points. If I criticize an argument, and the person I’m arguing with says, “that’s not what I’m saying – let me explain, there are nuances.” I listen to their explanation. If I don’t buy the nuances, I say so up front, agree to disagree, and move on. If I do buy them, I say “hey, thanks for enlightening me,” and adjust my criticism accordingly.
- If I am dealing with events that I have direct knowledge of, I never, ever lie about what happened just to save face or make someone else look bad.
Of course, I don’t expect anyone else to follow these rules. But I try to follow them, and I recommend them for writers, whatever they’re writing – from arcane scientific papers right down to low-traffic blogs. When I see accidental dishonesty in writing, I try to point it out. When I see intentional dishonesty, I pretty much lose the capacity to ever suspend my disbelief or give serious consideration to what that author is saying about the world ever again.
If you lose the trust of your readers once, you’ve probably lost it forever.