Libel, Labels and Frogs. Oh my!

 

 

In a private journal or in a conversation with your bff you can vent all you want. Not so in something written for the public in the nonfiction genre. When publishing an experience that happened to you, keep in mind your audience. Will they want to read three pages chronicling every tiny detail of your hour long wait to get a replacement ID card? Probably not.

As a ghostwriter I work closely with my authors to ensure the best book possible. Number one on my list is not getting sued. I think this hits home for me so strongly because my parents were sued by their business partner’s father when I was very young. My mom and dad had to declare bankruptcy. This was in real estate, not anything related to writing; however, the awareness of that unpleasant situation being a legitimate possibility became a reality for me.

Many writers don’t keep in mind how the obnoxious person being written about might read the published work. To avoid being sued for libel (written defamation), change the details. Usually I have the author write the first draft with accuracy to make it less confusing for them. Then after it is done I recommend going back and changing the names of everyone and any necessary details. I suggest my authors make a character list with the real names in one column and the new ones in another.

Did you have an overweight aunt who liked to belittle you? Change it to a neighbor. If it is necessary to keep the relationship, change them from a toe-headed blonde to a brunette and alter their nationality. This is the only time in nonfiction I recommend not being as accurate as possible. My journalism studies background makes me cringe inwardly every time I do this, but it is necessary.

This is not making up a story (fiction) and labeling it nonfiction. People do, however, publish a true story as fiction. Sometimes this is done when the topic or certain events such as physical abuse are difficult for the reader. Or if you have a great true story that happened to you and you build a fictional world around it. Many fictional books are written this way. The key is they are labeled as fiction.

When writing nonfiction for the public audience think about what details need to remain and what need to be altered. If you insist on changing legitimate details and make up half the stories, switch your genre to fiction. In nonfiction I don’t recommend changing factual details such as writing you were born green and with webbed feet, unless Kermit the frog is, in fact, your biological father.

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