Four Ways for Writers to Be Good Neighbors in Cyberspace (and Promote Our Own Work Too)

Writers today (particularly nonfiction) must have a robust online presence, particularly if we hope to earn some money by writing. Yet cyberspace is a tricky place. Most writers I know struggle with the same few issues: How to promote our work without being self-absorbed and obnoxious, how to avoid letting our self-worth get caught up in whether commenters like our writing (or not), and how to interact with other writers without being haunted by envy or unhealthy competitiveness. These issues can be of particular concern for Christian writers, because our faith demands that we love others as we do ourselves, put our self-worth firmly in God’s hands, and build up our brothers and sisters.

I think the secret to negotiating these tricky situations is for writers to be good neighbors in cyberspace, thus helping to foster healthy, respectful online communities. Here are four ways (with supporting scriptures even!) that writers can be good online neighbors as we nurture our own careers.

1.         Practice the golden rule.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

It seems so obvious, but I’m amazed at how often writers (including me) fail to do for other writers what we want for ourselves. What do we want? We want feedback. We want to know if our words make a difference. We want to know if readers agree or disagree. We want energizing debate without personal attacks. We want others to share what we’ve written to help us reach new audiences.

So give others what you most want. Comment on their posts, and not only when you disagree or see an opportunity to market your own book or blog post. Comment even when it’s just to say, “I think this is great. Thanks for writing,” If you don’t think it’s great, model respectful disagreement. Share others’ writing via Facebook, Twitter, and your blog.

2.         Share—because when we share, we all get what we need (i.e., Practice the “loaves and fishes” rule)

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. (Luke 6:38)

As writers whose careers are built on book sales, page views, and speaking invitations, we have to promote our work. But we don’t want our Facebook followers and blog subscribers to run away screaming because we can’t shut up about ourselves.

The secret to self-promotion that doesn’t drive people crazy (or away) is to give more than you ask for. In the majority of your blog posts, Facebook status updates, and tweets, offer something of value (other than a proclamation that your new book will change their life).

That something of value can be a witty, poignant, or clever observation; a fresh take on an old topic or current news story; a link to someone else’s article, blog post, or book; a moving or funny video; or a tidbit of useful information.

If you get a reputation for sharing useful, thoughtful, engaging content, your self-promotion will become just another way you share good stuff with your audience, rather than an annoyingly constant stream of pleas for attention.

And as you share stuff from other writers, you’ll get the attention of those writers and their audiences, who just may turn around and tell people about the great new resource they found—you.

3.         Self-promote with confidence and honesty.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)

For me, as a writer who spends significant time each day participating in the blogosphere and social media, it is second nature to share something I like by linking to it on Facebook, writing about it on my blog, or tweeting it. It’s not second nature for everyone. But if you ask for help spreading the word, many of your readers will be happy to oblige. People usually like to be told how they can help.

When you do self-promote, do it boldly. Don’t be coy or clever. Don’t be pleading or self-deprecating. Don’t try to make your self-promotion look like something it’s not. One of my pet peeves is when writers say, “Feel free to like my Facebook page/review my book/share this link.” The expression “feel free” is useful when we’re inviting people to do something they probably want to do, but may hesitate to do because they’re unsure of protocol, as in, “Feel free to raise your hand to ask a question any time.” News flash: People are not sitting by waiting for permission to love your work and shout their love from the rooftops.

If you want people to like your Facebook page, review your book, or tweet your link, ask them to. And don’t try to spin it. Try, “Please post a review of my book on Amazon,” instead of, “You have an opportunity to be one of the first people to review my book on Amazon!”

4.         Stick up for your neighbors.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31).

(This scripture refers to defending people who don’t have a voice—the poor, needy, and destitute. I’m taking some poetic license to apply it to the blogosphere.)

We’ve all seen comment sections get hijacked by negative commenters who are interested not in informed and respectful debate, but in undermining the blogger’s reputation and maligning their character.

Sometimes hijacking is a coordinated effort. I’ve been subjected to hijacks in which the commenters recruit like-minded folk and then go back to their Facebook pages afterward to give each other virtual high fives. Apparently some people never outgrew junior high. Sometimes things spiral out of control when one or two commenters misinterpret the blogger’s intent or twist his/her words, and then other folks come along who respond primarily to those commenters, rather than to the content of the post.

I’ve learned from hard experience that it’s rarely a good idea to respond directly to these sorts of commenters. They will just take my additional words and twist them. I will come across as defensive and desperate. I feel helpless—unable to speak up for myself as my original post and intentions are lost in the hubbub. I am extremely grateful when one of my writing colleagues or faithful readers speaks up in my defense, so I don’t have to.

So let’s speak up when we see a fellow writer under attack. Remind commenters of what the writer actually said, instead of what their detractors say they said. Model how to disagree with someone’s opinion without accusing him/her of being a terrible Christian/parent/American/writer/person. Name meanness and misinterpretation for what they are.

Speaking up for writers when they can’t speak up for themselves may not do anything to thwart hijackers. In fact, it probably won’t. But it does give writers a tremendous boost at a time when they are feeling helpless and alone.  That’s part of being a good neighbor.

I certainly don’t do all these things all the time; balancing self-promotion with other content is particularly tricky in these early weeks of my new book’s release. But I strive to be a good neighbor to colleagues and readers, and help build online communities marked by respect, sharing, honesty, and support. Being a good neighbor, and working alongside other good neighbors, makes it easier to learn from negative feedback rather than be damaged by it, rejoice in others’ successes, and cultivate a growing and responsive audience.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://eatwithjoy.org Rachel Stone

    Oh, this is good. Very, very good. So much of this just isn’t intuitive, and I know I’ve made some embarrassing gaffes while fumbling my way around social media/the blogosphere. I love how you tied good online manners to gospel ethics! Thanks so much.

  • Pingback: Worth Your Time « Thin Places-Faith, Family and Disability

  • http://www.hispaththroughthewilderness.blogspot.com Marlena Graves

    Ellen,

    Like Rachel, I think these are excellent insights. It’s good to know that others are for you and not against you in this dog eat dog world. Also I think that as we seek the welfare of others, we are in some way ensuring our own welfare. I don’t mean that in a sort of selfish altruistic sense, I just think that’s how it is. You’ve been a good neighbor to me. You practice what you write. Thanks Ellen!

  • http://bit.ly/ftheeiwasateenagequaker Helen W. Mallon

    Great advice. It’s fascinating to see how people negotiate the ‘rules’ of being in cyberspace. Of course, the eternal values always apply!

  • http://www.enumaokoro.com Enuma Okoro

    Ellen, this is a great start to a valuable conversation! I’ve been thinking about the “writers web community” a lot lately. So much of my writing community is online and I am just learning about fostering web-friendly collegiate relationships. The support and encouragement does wonders, and takes many forms. Thank you for writing about this. You are inspiring me to write about it as well….

  • http://logicandimagination.wordpress.com Melody H Hanson (@melodyhhanson)

    Such a good word, a challenge as we all easily fall into “snarky” or being a know it all. And I heartily agree with the reminder to encourage one another with a comment from time to time and not just those in our “club.” Writers need and want feedback! I know I do and frequently wonder what the hundreds who read my blog think, because they rarely comment. (The temptation is to just write controversial and hot topics to get people riled up enough to comment.)

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      So true Melody. Whenever I write about something controversial, I get many more page views and often more comments. It’s definitely tempting to choose my topics and/or tone based on what I know will get the most attention. And sometimes writing about something controversial seems like the right move for lots of reasons. But I think ultimately, it’s a better witness to avoid playing to our culture’s love of extremism, conflict, and controversy.

  • http://olderthanjesus.blogspot.com Alison Hodgson

    Very well said, thank you. I really liked how your point about forthright self-promotion, rather than the offhand. It’s like women of my mother’s generation who say, “Would you like to….” (fill in onerous task), when they really mean, “Would you please?”

    Making a simple, honest request is so much better.

    Thanks for this.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I have noticed that the offhand self-promotion I was talking about seems to be more common among female writers than male. I think it’s another symptom of how women internalize cultural messages that we shouldn’t take up too much space, that it’s unseemly to ask for help or attention, and that it’s selfish to make even the most reasonable demands on another person.

      • http://olderthanjesus.blogspot.com Alison Hodgson

        I agree with you entirely. I started to notice this in the older women around me and found it very distasteful and then I heard myself saying the same things!

        In our home there are frequent admonitions, “Just make a request!” We’re all learning.

        And you are correct about female writers. There is a sort of coy playfulness like, “Oh I’m above all this” and it doesn’t land well. I have been giving this thought as I work on a book proposal. When I read your suggestion to be confident and honest I exhaled a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.

        Thanks again.


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