Suggestions On Keeping Writers Safe

From time to time you may notice that your favourite writers burn out or leave the internet. A reason for that is the lack of support and how isolating the internet is as a workplace.

On the whole I always had a really good relationship with all my editors in games criticism. I was a fraught, difficult person to work with often and I wasn’t always a particularly considerate writer, but one thing that did make me a better writer was when I knew for certain editors had my back. I did my best work with that support. I took risks I wouldn’t usually take. I said more important things.

A good example of this was when I wrote about Hotline Miami 2. I felt weird about the emotional betrayal of the ‘rape’ scene, and decided not to write about it or say anything much about it – I’d loved the first game and I was tired of being torn apart because I’m a woman whose perspective might differ from the average gamer. Chris Thursten at PC Gamer asked me to write about it. I said if I wrote about it, it would only be an analysis of that one scene. He said that was fine, and encouraged me to do it. I’m not sure at the time whether this was because, being a man, he thought the reaction would be more minimal than it was. But both him and Graham (the editor at the time) were quite supportive. They also put the piece through a pretty stringent editing process when it came through, making sure I really wanted to use the words I actually used. They knew it would be picked apart. In the end, it turned out that people characterised me as being ‘outraged’ (MCV) at this scene or my wanting to have it ‘removed’ (forums) (this is not supported in the text I wrote), when I merely described how it made me personally feel and tried to analyse why it did that. Analysing how a game managed to do something is the top bill of a game critic’s job. ‘Advertising a game’ is not actually on the sheet. And ‘outrage’ more describes the response to what I still think is a fairly analytical piece.

I know not everyone has the luxury of a supportive editor, and in the recent internet climate, it has become much harder to really say what you want to say without being harassed, particularly for people with minority opinions, or opinions that might ‘go against the grain’. This is very bad. Because this means that writing about experiences, such as women’s experiences, or experiences of people of colour, or the bi-sexual, gay or queer experience, will start to be missing from the internet in all its wealth and plurality. I believe these experiences are already missing. I believe these experiences already had barriers to being expressed before the internet was even populated. But I want these things to be able to be said safely, because I know access to different points of view and the ability to self-educate has been completely invaluable to the personal growth and increasing kindness of countless people. Personally, I have learned to be more compassionate, more thoughtful, less judgemental, and more patient than ever before. I have stopped hurting people out of ignorance. I have learned to apologise. I have improved my own mental health. I have been able to help and be helped by a great many writers, editors and other colleagues. I want this to be available to everyone.

I believe it is very important to the progression of a free and safe society that writers be able to express a minority opinion without fear of harassment. In this vein I have put together some thoughts, drawing on my personal experiences, on how to protect your writers so that they can do their best work.

1.At pitch time

If you are a good editor at all, you will be able to spot a controversial topic miles away. You are probably really keen for people to write about them, since they always garner a huge internet argument which means a large amount of traffic. But you probably rarely think about what this means for the writer who has to endure the argument coming in to their inbox, their twitter, their facebook, their comments sections. And when it happens, you are probably just glad it is not happening to you. Maybe it does come to you sometimes but you just don’t know how to prepare for it. Or you might not even notice, because you are way too busy being underpaid and understaffed to notice the experience of your writers. I understand this. But it is vital to the continuance of your website that your staff don’t burn out. And so:

If you know that the writer is likely to endure harassment for their controversial opinion, you give them extra attention.
-You work more closely on the piece with them.
-You inform them that there may be a reaction they might not like (detail this reaction) and ask them if they still want to deal with this reaction. If they don’t want to do it after this, that’s an informed call.
-You warn them that they might have to lock or shut down their twitter.
-You warn them that they might want to filter their email messages.
-If the person is on staff, you may volunteer to check their email for them, or check their twitter for them.
-You prepare to moderate the comments more than usual
-You may choose to premptively shut the comments, and recommend a moderated forum where people might discuss the topic further.
-The mere suggestion that you care about your writer and that you want them to talk about anything that happens to them as a result of being on your website is valuable, make sure you do it.

An expert or professional opinion on a topic is always more valuable than the unmoderated rabble of the public. The public get 99% of the rest of the internet. They do not get to take a shit on your real estate and have you pay for to keep it there. You own the website. You decide who is on it. If you want good writers to pitch, and people to read your site, you make sure the writers feel good about being there.

2. Titles

Titles of articles are often the reason a writer is getting harassed, because they are often needlessly provocative. Sometimes the title is totally misleading as to the contents of the article, and people naturally haven’t even read the article and are harassing a writer over a title they didn’t even write! Especially if the article is recounting a personal experience that is horrible, think about not sensationalising the shit out of the title. At the very very least, ask the writer if they think the title is okay? Often it’s not even accurate, so you’re saving yourself some trouble.

3. Freelance writers

Often you will hire a freelance writer because they are going to provide a perspective or angle that your staff cannot provide. Often they are getting a couple hundred dollars or whatever the fuck to punch your website up a notch. But freelance writers lack a good bit of the framework that your staff writers enjoy. That’s why you can exploit this prime meat they bring to the table.
-They can’t turn to the person next to them in the office or poke someone in Slack to say they are having a bad time or feel isolated and need cheering up
-They often don’t have someone who can take care of their emails, twitter, facebook
-In the US they don’t have access to affordable mental healthcare or referral
-They may not be around another writer for miles who they can talk to about the experience of being harassed
-Chances are they are new to the game if they’re going to write about a big hitter topic like, say, ‘I got rape threats in [insert game here]’ totally fearlessly (sometimes they are just reckless like me). But you as an editor know that this is going to lead to unpleasant people turning up to fuck with them. It is not an ethical move to hang this person out to dry just so you can say you Covered Important Lifechanging Topic. It may become one of the reasons they never write again.

Make sure they have the support that means they will come back and write something else for you. Think about warning them about the reaction, and helping them with their piece more closely. Think about giving them access to Slack or your chatroom to report problems. Make sure you are moderating their comments. Promise them you will monitor the troll behaviour for them. Think about giving them a better rate for something you know will cause them a lot of stress. Make them feel like part of the family. Make them feel like they belong, and they will give you better work, and better pitches.

4. Staff writers

If you have a member of staff that is often targeted for giving controversial or unusual opinions, or if the internet simply has it out for this staff member, a thing not to do is to start doing what the internet does, and begin close-reading and picking apart their work more harshly, treating them more harshly because you are afraid the situation will get worse, internally blaming them for the harassment spilling over onto your side of the fence. You may internally feel some resentment, but guess what? It’s misguided! Harassment can come from anywhere at any time and you wait long enough, it’ll come for you. Start supporting them now. Start complimenting the good parts of their work. Start encouraging them to talk about how they feel. Start protecting them. Start standing up for them. In particular, it is really important that whoever is in charge of the site leads in this. Be a leader. Lead. Make sure your voice is the first and last, in public and in private, that no writer of yours will feel alone and targeted. Give them a person to talk to.

Ask them if they need or want a holiday when they seem worn out. Give it to them.


5. If the shit hits the fan with a member of your staff

If the shit hits the fan and someone you are responsible for publishing is in the middle of some big deal harassment that no one saw coming, aside from the Twitter, comments, email lockdown you can do for them or they can enact, your number one priority is to be the speaking voice for that person so the harassers know their victim is already unavailable to them. The internet tries to make out like it is the whole of it versus one person: your writer. They isolate, then they pick them off. Not the fuck on your watch it isn’t. As a website responsible for commissioning and publishing that article you take responsibility for the writer’s wellbeing and what they published. You made the decision, now you lie in the text bed. If a writer is panicking – you step in. Your writer should be able to tell you directly: I need help with this. The trackbacks and pingbacks are making this worse? You go to those websites directly and ask them to stop. Your number one job is taking responsibility and making the workplace safe. This isn’t going to work out for you if your writers feel alone and like nothing can be done about their workplace.


6. Counselling

If you’re working day in and day out on the internet, your company should be providing at least a monthly therapy session without writers having to pay for it. I’d suggest even freelance writers should get this, but that’s sort of like asking if the Tories could stop tearing up everything the British public loves.


7. Use compliments

The games press is bad at compliments. But a compliment from an editor is like a fucking drop of water in the desert. Sometimes you crawl for miles just to drink that one drop, and then you can crawl for another day.