How to Use Triggers to Write Better Articles and Stories
I have to give props to DRM for his honest article on the need to be loved and the impact of negative comments about our writing in a public environment. Why Do We Care So Much What Strangers Think of Us? It triggered my own struggle with being a good writer, one who helps others while still meeting reader expectations.
The Danger of Vulnerability Mixed with Feedback
Though I agree that vulnerability is one secret to good writing, I’ve had to learn that the comments I receive on that writing — whether positive or negative — need to be separated from the belief that those comments are an accurate reflection of myself. Most of us don’t have a problem accepting positive feedback, but negative feedback tends to play on our insecurities and sometimes hinder our ability to write.
I, too, have instant recoil reactions when negative social media comments, or book reviews, are made about me or my writing. However, I’ve trained myself to not respond, and to stop and consider why am I having that initial reaction.
Often my reaction is a reflection of my own lack of self-confidence in my writing of the article or the book. As a writer I know, intellectually, that nothing is ever perfect. Yet something happens when I release my article or book to the world. That is that I hope everyone will tell me it’s perfect anyway.
Even when I finally publish an article or a book, I could tell you all the places I’m not sure it really works or how I struggled to get a section to better reflect what I was trying to show. But I publish it anyway because I’m on a deadline and that forces me to accept what I’ve done as the best I can do at that moment and move on. Without a deadline, I would never publish a single creative work. Every single thing I’ve published in my life has flaws. Every single one could be improved given more time to do it. They are never perfect.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop the immediate recoil when someone doesn’t like what I’ve written. That is particularly true if they use language judging me to be wrong, stupid, or other less flattering terms. My “people-pleaser gene” is over-expressed and well trained to immediately want to fix it — to make the reader happy. However, as I’ve gained confidence in myself, I have trained myself to stop accepting that it’s an accurate reflection of who I am.
That is I’ve learned to say to myself: “This is not about me. It’s about the person writing the feedback. I’ve triggered something in them and they are lashing out with anger or expressing their own self-doubts.”
It’s taken me a while to be able to say that and believe it. The road to that statement is based on knowing and believing I have done the best job possible given what I know and the time available. I know I am a good person, though not perfect. I know that I never set out to hurt anyone, put anyone down, or purposefully cause a rift with anything I write. In fact, it is the opposite. Everything I write is a reflection of my beliefs and knowledge over time. I always set out to help, to share in the hope that my writing makes sense of life or a process for someone else in the same way it has for me.
How to Use Triggers to Write a Good Article or Blog Post
We all have triggers based on things that have happened in our past or ways we’ve been treated poorly. Depending on how the day is going, we can’t help but lash out when something reminds us of that.
I have an immediate angry reaction to certain types of articles and to certain types of books. Because I know that about myself, I stop and don’t respond immediately.
When I read article on any blog, major newspaper, or e-zine, and it triggers me my fist thought is to immediately make a comment. Fortunately, I don’t do that because I know that writing in anger or fear will not be my best response and will likely cause an online flame war. Instead, I write out my response in a Microsoft Word document with the intent of making it an article of my own. Then put it away overnight. That does two things for me: 1) it allows me to speak out and get all my emotions down on the page; and 2) the act of writing it down forces me to slow down and not simply react. Fortunately, I can’t type as fast as my mind thinks.
With that trigger still fresh in my mind, I allow time for some of the emotion to be dampened by sleep. The next day I proceed to put some structure and logic around my response. Putting that structure around it also helps me to really get to what I find most objectionable. Then I put it away overnight again.
In the end, it isn’t about the person writing the article, the critique, or the book that triggered me. I really know nothing about that person except what they put on the page for me to read. It is about how they expressed their opinion or characters or story that I objected to.
It could be that the writing is a true reflection of the individual. It also could be that the writing is not a true reflection of that person, but a poor attempt to present an idea. It may be that the person is purposefully trying to trigger people to get a conversation started (sometimes called click-bait). It could be any number of things. The point is I don’t know the person and they don’t know me. Therefore, I can’t make a judgment that the person’s intent was to hurt anyone — especially not me.
If I open my article on the third day and I’m still very angry, then I put it away again. When the article no longer contains anger aimed at a specific individual, I will publish it. When I am able to admit in the article why it triggered me, then I know I am able to publish it because I am now taking responsibility for my feelings and my opinions in what I’m writing.
In fact, I recently did that with an article I wrote on Medium named: Who to Believe When Health Claims are Made. That was based on a triggered response to a writer who sounded to me like the writer was selling a diet product as a prevention to getting Alzheimer’s and using statistics poorly to prove her point. I was livid. I was so livid I almost didn’t stop myself from responding angrily. Because my mother has Alzheimer’s and I know the desperation of caregivers to find a cure or stop its progression, I couldn’t believe someone would so carelessly report statistics and lead people to a false conclusion or false hope.
But my practice of not responding directly, but writing it up with all the anger and emotion I need to expel and setting it aside saved me. By following my practice it made me realize that a person, who makes a living writing health articles, likely had no intention of trying to hurt people or lead people astray. Instead, she was doing the best she could given her knowledge and her research and revealing an option she believed would really work based on her own experience or other beliefs about what makes people healthy.
When I stepped back from my anger I realized she wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand statistics and uses them incorrectly. In fact, part of my trigger was the realization that millions of people, including big media outlets and large news corporations don’t stop to check the foundation of statistics they come across. In their chase of a sensational story or finding and the need to beat the competition, they repeat false conclusions all the time.
It took me a week of opening that article each day and putting it away again before I could be calm enough to write a helpful article and to be open to sharing why I was triggered. Once I had calmed down, I realized I could use that trigger to write about statistics and hope that a non-math explanation would help others to evaluate statistics for themselves and decide what they wanted to believe instead of accepting percentages as facts.
In the end, it was a much better article than the rant I began when I immediately captured my feelings. I believe it did what I always want to do with my writing. That is to express emotion, show compassion, and perhaps help others making difficult decisions in their own lives to have another tool to help them make the best decision possible.
How to Use Triggers to Write a Good Book
I’ve also used triggers to write both fiction and non-fiction books. I use them because they connect with readers and share my passion for the topic or the story. In fiction, particularly, it is often more than one trigger that creates my characters and their journey.
A suspense series I began about soldiers retiring and becoming civilians is based on several triggers. I began the series when my eldest son was in the Marine Corps serving two tours of duty in Iraq during the early 2000s. I was first deathly afraid of him being killed. I was also worried that he would come back changed. That he would have PTSD.
I had a lot of experience from the Vietnam era when so many of my peers came back with PTSD, drug addictions, and returned to a divided public who blamed the soldiers for the war. In addition, as a pacifist, my pride for their service and sacrifice has always been juxtaposed against my hatred of guns, of war itself, and of the entire concept that the way we get what we want is with violence.
All of those triggers and complex feelings went into the first book in that series and will continue to be played out in the subsequent books. I believe it makes them better books. For me, my characters are more complex humans than the superman soldier or the peacenik hippie tropes. Of course, not every reader agrees with me. Some readers want more clearly cut good guys and bad guys. That’s okay. It doesn’t make me a bad writer, just writing something that doesn’t fit every reader’s needs or expectations.
All the nonfiction books I’ve written were based on my anger triggers when people try to proclaim “the one true way” to success or spirituality or finding happiness. In my experience, there is never only one “true way” to anything. Life is filled with so many variables and humans are in different places of knowledge and power and capabilities. All of my books present multiple paths and are careful to say what I present is what I’ve learned over time, but not a promise that my way is the only way or the right way. (I know not the best marketing approach for people who want instant answers.) Again some people like my approach, others do not. I’m not trying to reach everybody, just the people who may be able to benefit from my approach.
The Importance of Editing When Writing Based on Triggered Emotions
Good editing is key for an article or a book to work when it is based on triggered emotions. For short work, articles or short stories, I can usually do my own editing because I let it sit and look at it over time — sometimes a few days, sometimes an entire week or more. I often need to restructure from my first draft. To end up with an article that helps others requires me to take my anger at an individual or an individual piece of work out of my story. Instead, I have to put me in the center of it — my response, my trigger, my experience.
A work of longer fiction, particularly a novella or novel, requires me to have someone else help with the editing. Yes, I could edit it for grammar and punctuation and even structure and continuity. However, what I cannot do is objectively evaluate if I put the appropriate emotion on the page. I cannot accurately judge if I provided enough foundation to build to the climax I created. Though I may love the ending, I’m not a good judge of if I provided the payoff I promised and if it will meet the needs of my readers. Sometimes I can’t effectively evaluate if my characters are believable or over-the-top or too understated for the story. I can’t see all of these things clearly because of the triggers.
I know this because, over more than 20 fiction works, my editor always finds things that can be improved. On some books, it may only be three or four places in the book where a single paragraph rewrite or the selection of a different sequence of events makes a difference. In other books, it may be my entire middle leading up to the climax that needs to change. I never know which ones will need more story editing than others.
I pay for a developmental editor (also known as a story editor) to do this because it is important to me that I tell the best story possible. Some people choose to use a friend or another author to do this work. That’s great if it works for you. For me, I’ve always been concerned that another author may not be able to strongly say: “This doesn’t work because…” or “Honestly, your female protagonist is too on the nose in this section.” Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair for me to count on the ability of another author to have all the skills of a story editor. In my experience some do, most don’t.
Triggers have made for some of my best articles and the most memorable stories. I don’t use triggers for every article I write. Some of my articles are simply a reflection of my beliefs or knowledge. I do use triggers all the time for my fiction. It is what makes me write emotional stories. And the way I resolve those character’s challenges reinforce, for me, how to overcome challenges even when all odds seem against me.