Earlier this week, Lance Armstrong ripped into a UK reporter during a press conference. During a radio interview last year, Paul Kimmage, a sports reporter who wrote a book about doping in cycling, called Armstrong a cancer. “For two years, this sport has been in remission. And now, the cancer’s back.”
During the press conference, Kimmage asked Armstrong a question about other cyclists who had been accused of doping and remarked that Kimmage had requested but had not been granted an interview.
Armstrong, who says his return to professional cycling relates to his desire to raise awareness about cancer, told Kimmage, “I’m here to fight this disease. You are not worth the chair that you’re sitting on with a statement like that with a disease that touches everybody around the world.”
Although it seems there’s lots of strife between Kimmage and the professional cycling community, writers — and indeed anyone in the public eye — can learn a lesson from this exchange. We as writers may come up with an idea, a comparison, a simple descriptive term. When we’re sitting alone in our house, writing thousands of words a week, we’re not mulling the ramifications of each and every word. We can easily, easily forget how words hurt, how quickly they can make an impression, how much they may weigh once the world hears them.
Sometimes we simply flick them off our fingers in a flurry and don’t stop to examine potential consequences. Other times we craft them carefully, knowing that they’ll attract some attention, creating the perfect sound bite that others will pick up. I can imagine Kimmage was pretty proud of himself when he put together that comparison: in his mind, he thought it clever, controversial, quotable and true.
But he probably crafted the analogy alone, at his desk, with no audience for feedback. We forget the power of words and the swiftness of their delivery. And sometimes we hurt people with our carelessness.
I’ve been guilty. One time in particular, I wrote an in-depth feature about local campus haunts. I sat for an hour or so in each and wrote snarky, snappy prose about the atmospheres where we spent our time. My article earned me the nickname “Poison-Pen Beth” from local business owners. I didn’t connect how my clever words might have an effect on their livelihoods. (Note: I really don’t think it had any real impact at all on patrons, but my words hurt the hard-working business owners nonetheless.)
In writing, just like in life, it’s good to remember that what you do may have an impact on others. It’d be pretty wonderful if we lived our lives in pursuit of making other lives better, not more miserable.