How to Keep your Writing Clean, Civilised and Lawyer-free
Created | Updated Dec 12, 2010
To speak freely. Or not. That is sometimes a tricky question.
How to Keep Your Writing Clean, Civilised, and Lawyer-Free
A few years back, I was writing a US history role-play on the Cherokee Trail of Tears, sort of a 'you are there during ethnic cleansing'. I didn't want the exercise to be an unrelenting litany of horror, so I included information that would help students understand the Cherokee way of life, such as how to make a blowpipe. It turned out that my father remembered making small blowpipes as a kid in the Tennessee hills, but he'd never heard of my most fascinating find – yellow jacket soup1.
In my lesson, I explained how the Cherokees used every food source available in nature. I described how they managed to collect yellow jacket nests in the fall, avoid being stung, and bake the paper nests over a fire to remove the grubs, which they then boiled into soup. I ended with, 'Try this at home for a delicious taste treat.' I know teenagers, and I thought this would make them both laugh and gag simultaneously, always a salubrious exercise.
The email I got from my editor was unequivocal: 'NEVER say things like that. We get Mail.' I laughed.
This brings me to my topic: the need for caution in a world gone both dumb and litigious. I was sure no teenager would go out in the woods and grab him a mess of tasty grubs, but could the educational system be so sanguine? In a climate of lawsuits involving hot coffee and a 25% functional illiteracy rate in some parts of some US states, what constitutes reasonable restriction on speech? Is telling my neighbour to stick beans in his ear a form of yelling fire in a crowded theatre? Who's to know?
Now, I don't believe the British public is one bit more intelligent than the US public. If you're British, I'm sure you do, and maybe you are right2. Be that as it may, this website, like all the other websites, has to protect itself from silly people and greedy lawyers/solicitors/barristers/and etc. Since user-generated content sites are vulnerable, due to multiple authors, mechanisms are in place to ensure that nothing actionable gets published under the group masthead. This is a good thing.
What is often not a good thing is the 'cup and the lip' phenomenon – to wit, editorial management may believe we understand why we shouldn't tell kids to chase yellow jackets, whereas we may be too naive/gullible/just plain dumb to have thought of it3. So I thought I'd make a few suggestions that would help when writing content for any website you choose to name:
- Do not ever mention a company or its product by name. Not even to praise it. Instead, do what I do: Make up a funny name. The same goes for people and places, just in case. Call John Smith Bob Jones – er, no, don't do that, the university might think you were talking about them, just call him William Williams. Even the Welsh couldn't figure that one out.
- Don't talk about politics right before elections. This could be perceived as canvassing. Save it for your personal blog. You know, the one where you pay for the bandwidth. Otherwise, it's like going to your neighbour's cocktail party and high-jacking the floor to hold a Topper-Ware(TM) party.
- Don't comment on court cases that haven't been settled yet. No matter how dumb you think the judges probably are. Don't even do this if the court in question is in Outer Mongolia.
- Don't cuss at people. If you're like me, and don't know all the cuss words4, start a list and make your own macro to test your writing. This can get annoying – I sometimes shout, with Bel, 'Who THINKS of these things?' But it's worth it in the long run. Take the word of somebody who got yelled at by his dad for saying (innocently) 'in like Flynn' in front of mother and sisters.
- Never tell people to stick beans in their ears. Or go wasp-hunting.
Now, a piece of legal boilerplate on my part: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL STATEMENT. I can't make official statements. I'm about the least official person on the planet. If I said it was raining, you'd look out the window. All I ever do is suggest, tease, cajole, and attempt to inform, in my tinfoil-hat sort of way. The above represents a mini-check-list of what I do in my attempt to combine the desire to communicate with the need to keep everybody involved out of hot water. It may not be an innocent world any more, but we can try to make it a safe one, if we can.
If anybody has questions about this website's official policy, consult The House Rules. If anybody has any further suggestions on how we can make writing and using this website better, you know what to do – just start a thread at the bottom of this page.
It's your privilege as a contributing Researcher. Just stick to the guidelines, and remember: 'No Spitting'.
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