Keep Your Fingers to Yourself

Internet footprints may not need to be shod but they certainly will be monitored. Are yours ready?

What you say online is an important topic for everyone with access to the Internet, and it is extraordinarily important for writers. Why? Because we editors judge you by what we know about you, and only part of that comes from any query you send.

When you send me a query I read it at least twice because it’s the way you introduce yourself, what you talk about, and how you say it in addition to the sample piece you submit that helps me get a feel for the entire person. If I am still interested, I will then go online and “google” you. And here’s where my superb research skills come into play.

I loved my college days, especially my later ones in my early forties when I returned to finish my degree. I loved writing papers, often turning in thirty or even fifty pages when only a dozen were required. I would research the hell out of my topic, and since much of it was interesting I would include it. The Internet made things so easy compared to card catalog drawers and penciled notes on cards. I would spend hours (as I still do on my bookmarks columns) thinking of synonyms and alternative phrasing, chasing down links, going through twenty, fifty, once even eighty pages of Google returns to find information that would be of interest. And I loved coming up with stuff that was often hidden from more casual searchers.

It’s easy to see where this is going. When I get online to do additional research on a querier, I go beyond a website, beyond the easily found articles, beyond the blog and comments. I dig. Deeply. If there’s dirt there I want it under my fingernails. I want to know if the querier has a temper, if she writes vitrolic posts on forums, blogs, or in comments’ sections. Has she expressed hot-button views in a way that are less statements and more incendiary? Is he inclined to use profanity as a matter of course? Are there nasty flame wars attached to his name? In other words, who is the real person behind the query?

I look for this because BiblioBuffet has built a reputation for quality. You will never find one of our writers who uses profanity for profanity’s sake, who creates or participates in flame wars, who abuses or mistreats other people online (and probably in real life), who is, in short, anything less than a polite, considerate user of the Internet—not because we require it, but because they just are. Any future columnists who join us will also be that way.

I’m far from the only one who thinks like this. Agents and other editors often warn, though their blogs, that they also research potential clients not just for their credits but for their lives. Are they likely to be ticking time bombs that could go off and damage us? We are for the most part a very sensitive bunch about our reputations. Any hint of a potential threat, and it becomes easy to just turn a querier down regardless of a query’s value.

Something we should all know by now is that whatever we do online is online probably forever—or at least for too long. Digital footprints whether in writing or in photographs are here to stay. Get drunk and take off your top in public at that great college party (as some young female students at UCSB are wont to do), and you may find your post-graduation application to that top-notch law firm round-filed before you know what happened. Blog in haste about those “idiot” agents who turned your Great American novel down, and I will find it. Lambaste, or worse, attempt to incite your fans against a book reviewer because she roasted your current novel and you will find that not only won’t your next book get reviewed but that you will be avoided by many other review publications.

Really, it’s not hard to maintain a presence online while keeping yourself looking good. Be nice. Think before you post. If someone makes you angry remember that you do have the right to get up and leave the “room.” If you are a writer, it probably feels quite natural to fire off a written reaction. Writing’s what writers do, after all. But don’t. If you still find it difficult to control some reactions, then may I suggest that you take the line below, copy and paste it into a desktop publishing or word processing program, put it into a font and color you like, blow it up, print it, and attach it to your monitor right where your eyes naturally land. Your mother may have told you that there are times when you should keep your thoughts to yourself—and she was right in many cases—but when you are online there are times you should also . . .

Keep your fingers to yourself!

Your reputation and your writing career will thank you. So will your editors.

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