What you know the most about is what you can offer the most insight about. And you probably know that telling stories is always more compelling than talking in generalities. But if you tell stories, you need people to be in the stories. So if you want to write insightfully, then using stories about people close to you makes sense.

Writing about a co-worker is similar to writing about a sex partner: you know a lot about the person, both good and bad. So you could ruin your relationship by writing about them. So you have to get good at writing about co-workers without pissing them off.

As someone who writes about co-workers, boyfriends and family members all the time, I have a few tips for doing it in a way that keeps your writing interesting without getting you into trouble.

Negotiate before you write
Readers always complain that I'm ruining my relationships by blogging about them. (The record-breaker number of these complaints is on this post about my ex-husband.) But I know a bit about this terrain: I sold a novel in my 20s that included all my sex partners. And in graduate school for creative writing, I wrote my master's thesis on my sex life, in real time. (Stop Googling: It's under a pen name. Remember? I’m the queen of pen names.)

Anyway, from that experience, and from writing a column about my workplace for three years in the 90s, I have a lot of practice negotiating with people before I write about them.

With a boyfriend, or a close co-worker, I explain to them that they will always have veto rights, so they don’t have to worry about what they do or say with me. They are always surprised, and they are always relieved.

The truth is that any writing is just one person's very skewed version of the story. So what they read about themselves is always jarring at first, and then the person ends up not minding. I have found this to be true in most cases.

Also, once you know you’re negotiating, then you have more latitude. Sometimes people will say, “Don’t write this,” before they tell me something. I always say okay. Because of course I want to know what comes next. And I can negotiate later if it is interesting enough to write about.

Let people edit what you write about them
You must write it all out first before you show them anything. They will feel out of control at first when they realize it's not their version of the story. But they feel more control when you tell them to edit. Usually, the person does not change anything. Or they ask me for one, tiny adjustment.

For example, in the post where I am screaming at the 25 year old for not going down on me, he asked me to change “and you don't know how to do oral sex” to “you don't do oral sex,” because, he reasoned, how could I know?

Know what can't be said
My brother works at Microsoft. Everything is off limits unless he's forwarding me a press release. Another brother of mine worked at McKinsey, and he'd have great dirt on the higher-ups of the world, but everything was off limits.

Dissing where I live — Madison, WI — gets me in trouble. Not that I don't do it. I do. For example, the public schools here stink. And I refer people to national rankings, and people tell me the rankings don't matter. But really, public schools are a function of money. Madison is not a city bathed in wealth. This should not be controversial. But apparently it is.

So I'll hide it in a post about blogging, which few Madison people will read. They mostly read the sex stuff, I think.

Anyway, you'll find quirky, sensitive spots that each person has. Stay away from those. Even if you know you have great insight.

Surround yourself with confident people.
Ryan Healy was only 24 years old when he was writing the Twentysomething posts and being attacked weekly. After that, I knew he could handle anything.

It's not a function of age or experience. It's a function of self-confidence and personality type. Very sensitive people are tough to write about because they will take anything you write much too personally.

So, the higher up in the organization someone is, the more likely they will be okay with you writing about them.

Part of that is self-confidence. It takes a lot of self-confidence to get to the top of anything. And part of this is being comfortable with oneself. People at the top usually know where their weaknesses are and they can laugh at themselves. Also, they have perspective, because they're putting out fires each week. And they know your blog is not a real fire.

I have written about all three of my board members, and I have written about all my investors. None of them cared. Really.

Remember that people exaggerate their own importance
Unlike Ryan Healy, another of my co-workers, Ryan Paugh, does actually care what people think of him. (Which might be the biggest difference between the two of them.) So I waited longer to put Ryan Paugh in the blog. But when I did, it was about a rash in his groin.

I showed it to him beforehand, of course. And he said, “Why'd you have to put that in?”

“Because it's funny.”

“Whatever.”

At that point, Ryan Paugh had learned enough to know that other people don't care. They might care for a second and then they forget about it.

But most people don't understand this. Most people think every detail of their life is really scintillating, and everyone is analyzing every word about them. Write about people who get it.

Don't blog anonymously.
I wrote anonymously for three years. I was doing startups, and writing on the side, and had no idea how big my column was. I knew they had moved it from online to print, but the pay was so bad, relative to software startups in the dotcom 90s that I had no idea I was writing a big column.

I also had no idea that my whole company was subscribing. People thought it might be me, because of a column I wrote about going to the E3 conference. But I really gave myself away with a column that announced our CEO was bi-polar and a column that documented my boss sexually harassing me.

Blogging anonymously is bad for a lot of reasons, but especially because it is a way to not be careful. If you are anonymous, you will not follow any of these rules. Because blogging is work, and following these rules is more work. But you eventually will be found out. It's how the world works. I mean, if your blog is at all successful, you'll be found out, and if your blog sucks, why are you doing it anyway? If you are not anonymous, you will always be careful.

Surround yourself with people you like.
You will never hear me hating a co-worker I'm writing about. It's too dangerous. I could end up being too mean for public consumption. I could end up telling him stuff he didn't already know. You don't have as much control over what you're writing if you write about a co-worker you hate. So I only write about hating non-coworkers.

For example, I rip on Ryan Healy all the time. We are always fighting. But I adore him. I feel lucky to work with him, and one of the reasons I'm lucky is that he lets me write about him. Whatever I want.

This is true of boyfriends, too. I don't date men who suck, so I am able to write about them in ways they like. Usually, if I can make them laugh they'll let me write anything. So maybe the best advice I have for you when it comes to blogging about co-workers is to leave them laughing.

132 replies
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  1. Grace
    Grace says:

    Penelope,
    In this post, I think you are responding to those who are horrified that you write the juicy details about your relationships. You do care what your readers think of you. However, the people that are saying that they don’t care that you are bloggng about them are lying to you. They really don’t like it but they know that it is the price they pay for being a part of your world.

  2. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    So, P-Lope:

    You are a hybrid of juicy gossip and sex columnist and career blogger. You have a code. Next!

    My 2 cents. People do not understand how ephemeral print mentions are in the public corpus. Even folks that get prominent mention is NYT best sellers are often forgotten days (not months or years) later.

    In this new instant media society, a person is mentioned on a blog or even a cable news show, is is swamped out of existence the next day.

    Even the fantastical murdering mothers on Nancy Grace’s CNN program are only as memorable as the next news cycle.

    A mention on P-Lope’s “Brasserie Careenist”, is a 4th of July sparkler’s duration.

  3. Dave Spencer
    Dave Spencer says:

    Interesting insights — I think another challenging area here is blogging directly about someone you report to, or who reports to you. It makes blogging about the practice of management difficult.

    For example, I may want to describe the learning experience that came from having a difficult performance or compensation conversation with someone. But I can’t, certainly not in the months immediately following it. It’s not fair to that person, nor to his or her teammates. Maybe 2 years down the road, with enough fictionalization to generalize it, but by then….

  4. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    PT:

    Interesting post.

    There is however a world beyond the blogosphere, beyond Twitterville, beyond the web, where people do not like to be talked about to strangers (which is what most of this blog’s readers are to you, no matter how much we know about you).

    Somewhere there is a golden ueber-rule which says “respect others’ feelings”.

    Because sometimes it is not about their confidence (but it is a bit about your being a reliable confidant), it is not about their importance, exaggerated or otherwise (but a bit about how important you think your writing about them is to your ends) and it is not even about letting them edit (for, by then, they know exactly how you feel about them or that particular incident). It is not even, as Alan Wilensky above mentions, about the ephemerality of things. It is about their prerogative to remain private citizens. Not everyone puts him/her self out in the public domain for consumption and criticism like bloggers do. There is a reason why there are 6B people in the world but only some 150M blogs.

  5. Sally
    Sally says:

    There are a million and more blogs out there. Yours is the only one I read regularly. You shock me, you horrify me, you inspire me, I relate to you, I enjoy you. You are truly a great writer. Thank you.

  6. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Delicious intrigue wets my whistle. To learn from advice while dining on your buffet satiates. May your future dining include those who brose the full buffet.

  7. Millennium Housewife
    Millennium Housewife says:

    To sum up? Tomorrow’s chip paper.
    To translate? The newspaper you wrapped yesterday’s english french fries in from the fish and chip shop. Hmm something lost in the translation there.

  8. Francine
    Francine says:

    I guest write under a pen name for a dating blog. The host also blogs under a pseudonym. The content gets pretty racy, and we write about both current and ex-partners, usually with the details and/or names changed enough so that almost no one would know who they are. Occasionally I write about an ex-boyfriend who happens to be a friend of the blog host (strange coincidence since they both live in a city 800 miles away from me). I find those posts most difficult to write, as I’m aware the ex sometimes reads the site and don’t want to offend him should he recognize himself. I much prefer being able to write with total impunity.

    Additionally, I’m employed in an industry that would make my life miserable if I were to write under my real name. I would be excoriated on their popular website and constantly have to prove to management that my blogging was not another actual job that interfered with my paid one. By the way, I live in Madison, and have no qualms about voicing my dislike of this plodding, self-satisfied, down-in-the-heels pseudo city–another benefit of anonymity in the blogosphere, although I don’t hold back on that topic in person either.

  9. Carol Saha
    Carol Saha says:

    Didn’t someone say the only bad publicity is no publicity? I love your blog but I think I’m learning as much about people from your commenters as I do your blog. Either there are a lot of nut cases out there that don’t know what the hell they are talking about and have very low comprehension levels or something about your blog attracts them all.

  10. Kiersten
    Kiersten says:

    Damn, I wish I would’ve seen this about 6 months ago. The first time a friend read my blog and saw their name, they were pissed. I was shocked, I didn’t even know they read my blog.

    Anyhoo, great post!

  11. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    Um, what’s the point of letting the people you’re going to talk about edit the content, if you’re only just going to eventually write what they wanted edited out?

    ex: “For example, in the post where I am screaming at the 25 year old for not going down on me, he asked me to change ‘and you don't know how to do oral sex’ to ‘you don't do oral sex,’ because, he reasoned, how could I know?”

    Unless I’m misreading – that’s what it looks like you’re doing here. Which pretty much negates the point of editing, and proves that a) you’re going to do whatever the hell you want anyway, and b) you’re not really that respectful of others’ wishes.

    Again, I could be reading this completely wrong…but this is how it comes across to me.

    • Erica Peters
      Erica Peters says:

      In this post she isn’t saying he doesn’t know how to perform oral sex; she’s saying “I had said he didn’t know how, and then he pointed out that I had no way of knowing that.” So the final impression left is that he didn’t perform oral sex, and she doesn’t know if he knows how or not. Which is what he asked her to post. Hope this helps.

  12. T. Meehan
    T. Meehan says:

    Great post– very helpful! I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately and it answers some questions I had…

    FYI, Penelope–I don’t think your Twitter link is working. I’ve tried it both in IE and Firefox and get an error message…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah. This is very annoying to me. But I appreciate that so many people have tried to do it and failed. Better that than nobody trying. Okay. But I’m fixing it. Well, I’m not. But I’m nagging people to fix it.

      Penelope

  13. Mitch
    Mitch says:

    Madison schools are not perfect, but they don’t “stink.” The rankings you connect to are based on percentage of students passing IB and AP tests — an interesting metric, but not the only way to judge schools.

    My subjective impression is that my daughters have been well-educated by Madison schools. I have criticisms of the schools, but I’m not sure they would have done better if they had followed my footsteps to Bronx Science.

  14. Shayla
    Shayla says:

    Great post. I have been trying and trying to get a blog started, but it always seems extremely boring, possibly because I have never written about people close to me. I think you’ve got great guidelines and I hope I can implement them in the near future.

  15. Veronica Sawyer
    Veronica Sawyer says:

    I agree that people are too sensitive about what is online about them for the most part.

    But it can really blow up in the unlikely event that a person becomes famous or infamous. That 20 year old video of Susan Boyle singing in a bar is making the rounds now. And near my town a young girl was abducted and there is no end to the gossip online about her parents’ past choices that are documented online.

  16. jafo
    jafo says:

    “the people that are saying that they don’t care that you are bloggng about them are lying to you. They really don’t like it but they know that…” – Dude, I don’t get what you’re doing here. Are you clarifying Penelope? Clarifying the other commenters? Ohhhh. No wait, I just figured it out. You’re desperately attempting to fit everyone into a box that’s more easily understood and digested by you. Gotcha. How’s that working out for you? Also, what’s a `bloggng’, is that like eggnog but different?

    “You are a hybrid of juicy gossip and sex columnist and career blogger. You have a code. Next!” – Oh yeah? Well, you’re a hybrid of electricity, metal drums and rotors and when used together form poly-alphabetic encrypted text. And, uhh. YOU have a code too. Next? (I don’t get the `next’. What, is that something the cool gen-y kids are saying nowadays?)

    “person is mentioned on a blog or even a cable news show, is is swamped out of existence the next day.” – There are a lot of `is’s’ in there. Is is this surely is what you want is saying? Is?

    “Even the fantastical murdering mothers…” – Bam! That’s it. That’s gonna be the next name of my band. “The fantastical murdering mothers”. I can’t thank you enough. On behalf of `The Mothers’, thank you.

    “is a 4th of July sparkler’s duration.” – Not for nothing, but that’s even longer than a lot of news cycles. How about you say instead, `…is equal to the duration of how long it takes the last flaming ball to launch from a roman candle, that you’ve shot at your friend’s crotch?’ or maybe something similar?

    “There is however a world beyond the blogosphere, beyond Twitterville, beyond the web” – …And in that world, a tiny man lives. Who has hairy toes and is often referred to by his name, `BILBO!’ and he had a friend who was a tall, pipe-smokin’ wizard, too. And Led Zepplin wrote a bunch of songs about them. So did Marc Bolan of T-Rex.

    “Somewhere there is a golden ueber-rule which says…” – `You’re not allowed to use foreign words that you misspell.’ You have to give it back. Now.

    “their prerogative to remain private citizens” – Wait, what does this have to do with being a `citizen’… Hold on now, unless you’re making a REALLY fantastic joke about the Heinlein book, `Starship Troopers’, in which case you win. That’s incredibly funny and very subtle. If you weren’t, then meh.

    “You shock me, you horrify me, you inspire me” – And you ROCK ME LIKE A HURRICANE!

    “Delicious intrigue wets my whistle” – Aww, seriously dude. I honestly don’t even understand this tragically misplaced analogy. Hey, know what wets my whistle? Water. And other fluids. Like maybe, kool-aid. And iced tea.

    “May your future dining include those who brose the full buffet.” – And it looks like it doesn’t even get much better as it continues. I would personally like my future dining to include a delicious brogue, or maybe a rogue, or rose. Or perhaps, some bros. With toes.

    “The newspaper you wrapped yesterday’s english french fries in from the fish and chip shop. Hmm something lost in the translation there.” – No, no! You were doing great, all up to the point where you sort of petered out. Maybe a reference to Adrian Mole, or Doctor Who, or David Beckham
    would have given you some more steam.

    “and have no qualms about voicing my dislike of this plodding, self-satisfied, down-in-the-heels pseudo city” – Hey now. Don’t be knockin’ mad-town, yo. We got the dairyist of dairy farmers and we ain’t like those lutefisk yokels who live south of us.

    “there are a lot of nut cases out there that don’t know what the hell they are talking about and have very low comprehension levels or something about your blog attracts them all” – Interesting independent commentary on just what sort of person this kind of `blogariffic drama’ attracts, eh?

    “Hahah you just bought me over PT.” – I think you mean `brought’. Otherwise it kinda sounds like she baked you some cupcakes and you came over and gave her like, 50p for them.

    “he first time a friend read my blog and saw their name, they were pissed. I was shocked…” – Hey, no kidding. Even I was horrified and inspired.

    “trying to get a blog started, but it always seems extremely boring, possibly because I have never…” – Invoked the drama-llamas?

    “I agree that people are too sensitive about what is online about them for he most part.” – Say that again, when your personal data is out there for the world to see. Or, pictures of your hoohaa, while you’re getting out of
    the cab. Or your name and the phone number to your OBGYN, after you went in for some `routine’ tests, and after all, like it was YOUR fault that your ex had something? Sheesh, and where does the OB get off, sounding all self-righteous…

    Errr. Sorry. Nevermind.

    • Loving jafo's essays
      Loving jafo's essays says:

      Sheesh jafo, why don’t you just start your own blog if you have so much to say?

      • jafo
        jafo says:

        You’re a sweetheart for saying so. My undying thanks.

        I had a blog once. Then I deleted it. Then I had another blog, then that one got deleted when I was copying posts out, (I still have no idea how I managed that bit-o-idiocy.) Then I had another blog, but it wasn’t a blog.

        Sigh. I get confused. Often.

        Besides, it’s more funner here.

        :)

  17. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    So who has found her thesis online yet? C’mon, we need this additional ‘research’ to understand the real Penelope… ;-)

  18. Brad Gutting
    Brad Gutting says:

    What’s the cliché again? The one about how stupid people talk about other people, average people talk about events, and smart people talk about ideas? Yeah, that one.

    Here’s a thought: don’t talk about other people. Give that a shot. It might help you keep your mouth shut until you have something worthwhile to say.

  19. ernie
    ernie says:

    P,
    I know you’ve read, You Can’t Go Home Again. Something about learning about others’ personal lives with the intent to disclose it seems unethical. I guess that is the way of our new world. I love your views, but seldom agree with them. You give me great fodder for my communication classes.

  20. Mr. Chow of ChowJobs
    Mr. Chow of ChowJobs says:

    re Blogging Anonymously – Your point is well taken and it’s something that I want to consider. I used a pen name because I work for a bank which is by nature conservative, and given the economic circumstances I could not afford to lose a job right now. If you have worked for a very square and conservative institution like a bank or law firm and is building a career in this industries, then I think you may not be as bold….

  21. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    I think you fail to give consideration to regional and generational differences. In general, Gen Y will be on one end of the spectrum and Boomers on the other. In Oklahoma, and I’m guessing much of the South Central Plains, this would never fly.

  22. Jon
    Jon says:

    I subscribed to this blog because of the relevant topics discussed, but am disappointed by the lack of judgement shown by the author. Topics at times dip to the level of porn. Unfortunately, I am unsubscribing because I cannot carry blogs in my inbox with this sort of content.

  23. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I have thought quite a bit about this topic since I’ve started to read blogs which relatively speaking isn’t all that long a time. I appreciate your insights and experiences here. They are very candid and it would be hard to find this info elsewhere. The first paragraph of this post is a very good description of your blog writing style and lead-in to this topic. I think the subject matter of this blog requires more stories about people (your experiences, other people’s experiences, and your experiences with them) than most blogs.
    Personal experiences do make for more compelling and believable posts as you say. Otherwise it’s just a matter of time before things get boring or the gig is up. I have some definite ideas about a blog I’d like to get serious about so I’ll be referring back to this post. I also think my approach to blogging will be measured, deliberate, and careful so as to learn by my successes and failures in a somewhat controlled fashion. Learn by doing … that’s the plan.

  24. Kristin T. (@kt_writes)
    Kristin T. (@kt_writes) says:

    I’ve been hoping someone much wiser and more experienced than me would come along to walk me through this issue. Thanks! I’ve been blogging for less than a year, and so often I feel like there’s some really detailed instruction manual out there, somewhere, but I haven’t found it, so in the meantime I’m innocently breaking all kinds of rules.

    I particularly like and agree with this approach to writing: “The truth is that any writing is just one person's very skewed version of the story.” Not only do readers need to take that to heart, but as writers, we’d do ourselves a favor by embracing that more fully and openly.

  25. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    Thanks Penelope, Your insight on this matter has been very useful. I recently started blogging in reference to my past abuse, at the hands of someone who is no longer living. I have had concerns about this may upsetting family members, however I feel more compelled to continue on, and not allow their views to cripple what may be a great healing experience for me. I don’t feel I’m being selfish or insensitive, but I think that those who try to hinder me are. I guess it is all in our perspective.

  26. Laurie | Your Ill-fitting Overcoat
    Laurie | Your Ill-fitting Overcoat says:

    I think this advice is dead-on. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since an ex found my blog. I’ve always thought that if you can write about someone well enough, they’ll be too flattered to care. We’re all self-absorbed as hell and it’s a heady feeling to see yourself portrayed in a clever, insightful way, even if what’s being said is not exactly glowing.

  27. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    I’m so glad I read this. I’ve been contemplating starting an anonymous blog after blogging so openly for the last few years. What you said about anonymity means you stop being careful is very true. After thinking about why I wanted to be anonymous I decided that it just isn’t worth it. I want to be proud of what I write, not ashamed or afraid enough to hide.

  28. isha
    isha says:

    haha. backtracking on some guy that said, print mentions are ephemeral. tell that to poor david dellifield. lol

  29. online bingo sites
    online bingo sites says:

    true story – a friend who worked in London in the advertising industry decided to cut loose because of, well the unfulfilling role. He made some enemies too along the way, which we all do.

    He decided to blog about it, naming people thinking that he was doing it with discretion, unfortunately his employer found out and was made to publicly apologise online. If you think that sometimes the world is a small place, the online world can be smaller at times so be cautious….

  30. buy gold phoenix
    buy gold phoenix says:

    Unless you are a very prolific blogger that has tons of readership, bringing in other people isn’t a big deal at all in my mind. But I like how you let people edit things.

    Your last point about surrounding yourself with people you like is a big one. Not just to follow these rules, but because the people you surround yourself with really affect your life… then again your blog might become pretty boring ;)

    Good post and thanks for bringing up some interesting points.

  31. chaney
    chaney says:

    I wish I would’ve seen this about 6 months ago. The first time a friend read my blog and saw their name, they were pissed. I was shocked, I didn’t even know they read my blog.
    great post!

  32. Read more
    Read more says:

    Well folks, this is pretty difficult situation here. The hardest is when you have to blog about someone you really care about, it becomes kinda difficult then. You have to watch your words.

  33. Mrs. W
    Mrs. W says:

    “Let people edit what you write about them”? You obviously aren’t a step-mother dealing with an ex-wife from hell who will take you to court for breathing her air. THAT is why some of us blog anonymously – just to get the crap out of our heads so we can deal with our homes.

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