Moments of Truth for Writers

Back in 1997 or maybe 1998, I took a customer service training class from a fantastic company called Ouelette & Associates1. The class focused on customer service for technical people, IT, etc. It was a seminal course, taught by an amazing instructor, Anita Leto, and it lead to a completely new way of thinking about the interactions I have with others. A central tenet of the course was something called “moments of truth,” a phrase that comes from a book of the same title by Jon Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavia Airlines.

A moment of truth is an outcome of every interaction you have with someone else, no matter the form it takes or how big or small it is. In the customer service realm, the interactions are, of course, with customers. There are generally two outcomes: a “positive” moment of truth and or a “negative” moment of truth. In thinking about interactions with customers you always strive to make positive moments of truth. The course (unscientifically) posited that it takes ten positive moments of truth to wipe out a single negative moment of truth. Not scientific, but concept rings true. You have a bad experience with an airline, and wild horses and free trips might not drag you back to fly with them again.

As a professional freelance writer, I’ve been thinking about moments of truth in my interactions with other writers, readers, editors, publishers, anyone really. I look at Facebook occasionally, and am often dismayed by how many negative moments of truth I see out there. I’ve avoided Facebook more and more for this reason, but having spent more time than usual on it yesterday, it got me thinking about my own interactions as a professional writer in the same way I have interactions as a professional software developer. I aim for positive moments of truth.

This goes from the story level on up. When I write a story (or a blog post, or an article) I try to make it the best it can be. I want it to be a positive moment of truth for the reader. I am not always successful. Occasional typos slip in and readers (almost always kindly) point them out to me. I used to think, ah, well, not a very big deal, I’ll do better next time. But I realized that while a few little typos might not bother me, they act as negative moments of truth for the reader. It doesn’t matter why. All that matters is that I’ve caused a negative moment of truth for a reader.

A story is an objective thing and some readers won’t like a story for highly personal reasons. Those are negative moments of truth, as well, although they are far beyond my control as a writer. These I just have to leave with, in the same way I live with customers that can never be pleased. What I do have control over, however, is further interaction with those readers. Once a story of mine is published, I feel that it is no longer mine, in the sense that I’ve said what I wanted to about the story and moved on. A reader may not like a story, may despise a story. I usually just let that stand. No need to muddy the water and risk a negative moment of truth by replying.

That said, if a reader writes to me to tell me that they didn’t like a story, I will reply with regret, and say that I can understand that, I don’t like everything I read either, you win some, you lose some, etc., etc., but thanks for at least giving me a shot. It’s remarkable the effect this type of reply has. I may not have gained a new reader, but I’ve gained a fan nonetheless.

My professional interactions go far beyond readers, however. Even before a story gets to a reader, it goes to an editor, who may have her own thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. Interactions with editors are just as prone to negative moments of truth as they are positive ones. When I first started out writing stories, I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, and I liked his author notes. In them, he made it sound like if an editor bounced a story of his, they were an idiot. I might have taken that same attitude early on out of simply naivete, but I haven’t thought that way in 20 years.

Positive moments of truth don’t mean you always agree or always say yes. I big part of the customer service training that taught me moments of truth was on how to say no, but still make a positive moment of truth out of it.

My technology posts and writing posts used to be filled with advice on how you should do this, or you should never do that. Over the years, what I’ve learned (and I may be a slow learner) is that people don’t like being told what to do. (You hear this all of the time in the writing world with “rules” about how to write tossed about like hot potatoes.) Slowly, I’ve tried to change my way of writing these posts. Instead of tell you what to do, I try to demonstrate what works for me, and suggest, perhaps, that this might work for you, too. Being told what to do or how to do it is like being a micro-managed writer, and it is a negative moment of truth. Demonstrating how I do things, without claiming they are better than any other method, but which seem to work well for me, comes across as a more positive moment of truth.

You’ve probably heard people say “Don’t read the comments.” Comments generally (although not always, and remarkably infrequently here on this blog) contain far more negative moments of truth than positive ones. You can disagree with people and still maintain good relationships. I try to do this by focusing on positive moments of truth and avoiding negative ones.

Comments are just one form of social media. Social media, as a whole, magnifies the effects of moments of truth. What might have been a small, indiscreet  negative moment of truth gets magnified into a big one because so many people can see it. You are always on stage on the Internet, and you’ll rarely catch the audience asleep.

Self-promotion is a necessary evil for writers today, and yet it is rife with moments of truth pitfalls. Too pushy and what you think is a positive moment of truth turns out to be a very big negative moment of truth. I find the balancing act of self-promotion the most difficult skill to master, harder than telling a story, harder than handling rejection.  Part of the reason is that promotion itself is supposed to be a positive thing, and yet done in the wrong way, it becomes a pinless grenade balance precariously in your hands.

And so I try–and whether or not I have been successful is not something that I am equipped to properly judge–to keep moments of truth in the forefront of my mind when I am writing, bloggings, promoting, transacting business, or interacting in anyway with others who read, edit, critique, buy, publish, or have questions about my writing. I aim for positive moments of truth. I miss a lot, but over time, I think I’m getting better.

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  1. I cannot recommend O&A highly enough. In the years since that first course, I’ve probably taken half a dozen other courses, ranging from project management, to requirements gathering, to testing, and they have all exceeded my expectation.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

One reply on “Moments of Truth for Writers”

  1. Veering only slightly on a tangent – lately I’ve been wondering why it is that some social media outlets seem to foster so much negative commentary (that is, posts that are negative, not commentary about social media in general). I could hope that this will pass in time, but I think its a result of the democratization that social media gives us – everyone can voice an opinion and shout from their own pulpit, knowing that their “message” will reach at the very least the people that “follow” them. In a weird form of extrapolate and apply – maybe this is why the founding fathers went with a republic instead of a straight up democracy. (I realize this wasn’t the complete point of your post, but once I started to veer to the side, I put the petal to the metal. I, in turn, apologize if this came off negative, since that wasn’t *my* intent either 🙂 )

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