Yes, the title—the ethics of not writing—is wacky. If you’re not writing, how could ethics be a question?

My second blog on this site was titled What is Ethical Writing? That nascent effort is the prompt for this blog, my 113th since early 2018. I wrote in that blog, “Ethics and writing are two concepts chained together in a dysfunctional marriage. How to write ethically requires being true to the aesthetic imperative, the narrative trajectory, and your reader’s requirements.”

This blog is inapposite—out of place. If you’re not writing, then there can be no aesthetic imperative, no narrative trajectory and no requirements because there’s no reader. But now that I think about it, there are ethical norms for people who are “not” writing. They stem from the trick question: what is “not” writing.

Without writing there can be no not-writing, right? Writing is a process that uses symbols to communicate. It’s communication in a readable form. Writing requires skills, knowledge, and language. It underlies how your “writing” will be seen, read, understood, and accepted. Not writing need not be seen, read, understood or accepted.

Here are just a few examples of not writing: uttering broken words, without verbs, much less whole sentences. Talking in code, as in FYI, TMI, or WTF. Writing is not slapping an emoji to a text, an odious sound to a tape, or a middle finger to an instantgram, a ticktocky, or a thoughtless tweet. You’re not writing when your sentences run on as a stream of unconscious gibberish looking to get out of limbo because you are too lazy to punctuate, and even if you did, we’ll see how that works out for me (or is it I before e?).

For actual writing, one must adhere to basic ethical norms—do not plagiarize —be truthful—original—honest—not hurtful—empathetic when called for—inclusive. When not writing, none of that applies because thoughtfulness is neither a goal nor a possibility.

Not writing is slurring your words while speaking in cursive. It’s not bothering with norms. It’s what people do when bored, tipsy, or sloppy. If your life is meaningless, you’re not writing a memoir. When nothing moves you, you’re not writing poetry. If you don’t wonder about anything, then you’re not writing fiction. If life bores you, you’re not writing prose—literary or otherwise. If music offends you, you’re not writing songs. If democracy is irrelevant to you, you’re not writing political commentary. If neither the universe nor our little planet interest you, you are not writing sentences or paragraphs with allusions to critical theory. If nobody talks to you, you’re not writing tell-all stories. If you’re not reading anything, you’re not writing anything. If you have no friends, you’re not writing thank-you notes. If you love life, you’re not writing suicide notes. And if you’re not writing back, you’re not being written to.

If those depressing conditions afflict you, there is an antidote. Read a book. That will stimulate you to write ethically.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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