Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tone-Policing vs. Editing

I've figured something out that has been mixed up in my mind for YEARS, ever since I took my first college writing class back in 2009. I've been confusing editing with tone-policing.

I was not familiar with the term "tone-policing" in college. If I was, I might have understood why the "editing" advice I was being given was totally wrong. But I didn't, so I soaked in the advice like a sponge because I was hearing from professional published writers and I wanted to be professional too.

The first time I learned about tone-policing was on a Tumblr blog about thin privilege. The blog shows lots of examples of thin privilege and discrimination against fat people. The blog authors also get a lot of hate mail, and sometimes they get these innocent-sounding questions which they will post and respond to, telling the people who wrote the questions to fuck off. At first, I was a little put off by this tactic. I thought that they were giving rude responses to polite questions, and that this was no way to gain followers. There were other readers who thought like I did and wrote in advising them to be more polite, and the blog authors responded that they were not going to tone-police what they said. I read more about tone-policing on this website and in other places, and it is very common for members of a privileged group to tone-police people who are speaking out about discrimination by telling them to sound nicer or less angry. This is horrible and extremely invalidating! This tells people that they do not have the right to feel how they feel.

When I looked more closely at the "polite" questions that got "rude" responses on the thin privilege blog, I realized that the questions were really not respectful at all. Even though the tone and word choice might have sounded polite, the actual content of the questions was discriminating against fat people, automatically implying that being thin was "better" than being fat, that there must be at least "some" circumstances in which it was okay to be disrespectful or non-inclusive to someone because of their size, or that it should be okay to treat people like shit if you somehow know that they are not healthy.  Some of the "polite" questions asked things that were in the FAQ. Now, I have nothing bad to say about people who ask questions that are already in the FAQ in *most* circumstances, like calling customer service to find out why your computer doesn't work or something like that. But the questions on this website were sort of worded like, "I'm normal and you're different, so you *owe* it to me to explain this." And then there were lots of "polite" questions like, "Why don't you be a body-positive site instead of only talking about negative stuff," in response to lots of posts about really horrible discrimination that is *happening* to people for real. So, yeah. Those "polite" questions don't seem so innocent anymore, and the harsh responses don't seem so unfair anymore.

It was at least a year or two ago when I learned about tone-policing, but I still had not made the connection to my own writing. I had not realized that the kind of "editing" I tried to do was actually tone-policing. The main writing advice I got when I was in fiction and poetry writing class was that I needed to write about stuff that I was not emotionally close to. I didn't listen and kept finding ways to squeeze things that were important to me into my stories and poems because I had a lot to say and I wanted to express myself through writing. But I always felt like I was doing something wrong and that to be a "good" writer I had to write about stuff that I was not emotionally invested in at all. I went into my writing classes looking for channels to express myself and had all of my channels blocked. The same thing happened a bit when I tried to express myself through the dances I choreographed. The first time I showed my dance, the club officers were signaling to us to smile without even listening to the music and watching the dance and at least being *open* to the idea that this might not be a smiley piece of art. They told me that my dancers needed to smile, I told them that the story of the dance was very serious and did not involve smiling, and they told me that maybe I could squeeze in *some* smiling somewhere. (Good advice in this case would have been to make our facial expressions stronger to better communicate the emotions that we were expressing).

Outside of college, the only people I got feedback from on my stories and poems were my parents. This was not good because my parents are not into angst stories at all and are more likely than the average person to complain that a story is to whiny. Some of my favorite books are books that my parents don't like because they think they are too whiny. I should have never taken their feedback on my stories so seriously because I know that they have this preference and I know that some of the books that they dismiss as too whiny are extremely popular. But I did not have feedback from anyone else.

I majored in psychology, so I learned how to write psychology papers using a the neutral tone of an outside observer. I attempted to use this same tone when I first began this blog. I wrote angry things on Facebook, but I wanted to keep this blog "nice." I thought "nice" meant well-written. I was actually censoring and tone-policing myself because I thought that was the only way I would get readers and be taken seriously as a writer.

When my ex broke up with me, I said, "I'm not a suck it up and deal kind of person, so you can expect a major drop in writing quality from here on out." And I stopped editing and started writing straight from my heart. And the people closest to me have said that I sound better this way, that I always sounded like I was trying to be neutral before.

I had confused good writing with censored, tone-policed writing, and I'm not going to do that anymore. Good writing is effective writing that communicates what you are saying to the reader. If what I want to communicate is, "This is a major problem that fucked up my life and it needs to STOP!" I am not going to achieve that goal by saying, "This is my nice passive observation of human behavior which I have no emotional investment in. It would probably be a teensy bit better if we maybe did things a little bit differently."

Your ideas are your own. Your experience is your own. When someone advises you on how to edit something, the editing should involve getting your original point across in a more effective way. If you find that your true message is lost or getting buried beneath polite language, you are not making your writing "better," you are tone-policing.

I will never tone police myself again. My goal is to scream louder.

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