I’ve never kept a journal or diary, and I’d never say I write for myself. I write to discuss, to share, to connect. So, naturally, I’m tempted to read the comments on my work. After all, isn’t this why I wrote? So others could read, and I could take my turn to listen in the writer-reader conversation?
But then I read the following, all of which are a very real and very small sliver of the reactions to a recent piece of mine:
“Shut the hell up lady”
“Lighten up, psycho”
“What a whack job”
“Lazy parents who don’t want to parent”
If you’re a writer in the age of the Internet, you’ve been the subject of some version of this. And when comments read like this, and you find yourself shaking with adrenaline and irritated as hell, it’s time to close out of that screen.
More than one editor warned me not to take the comments personally. Good advice, sometimes hard to take.
But it’s not all nastiness, and it helps to remember that there can be an upside to the comments:
- They are often thought-provoking. More than once I’ve seen something a different way after reading the comments, especially if it’s a theme that comes up repeatedly. A lot of people thought it was mean that I don’t bring my children’s lunches to school if they forget them. I don’t agree, and I’d never thought of it as mean, but these parents’ tenderness towards their children reminded me to clearly convey the message to my own children that I am doing this lovingly and warmly, because they are capable and mature, and not as a kind of punishment for forgetfulness.
- They can improve your writing. Like a good editor, a thoughtful commenter can point out holes in your reasoning, or expose ambiguity in your turn of phrase. If an intelligent reader misunderstands your message, perhaps it could have been more clearly written. (Of course, there are those who seem to read only the headlines, or who seem to want to intentionally misconstrue, but I think we can usually tell the difference.)
- They can give you a chance to clarify. If you do find that you’ve been misinterpreted, or commenters truly have questions, you too can comment in reply. Skip this if the commenter is simply spewing anger or hate like a volcano – again, you can tell the difference. Some forums are simply more civil than others – I will sometimes respond on New York Times Motherlode, where the comments tend to be more respectful, but usually skip commenting on Facebook pages, where comments often spiral out of control like some mad social experiment. “Would my response be productive?” is the question I usually ask myself.
- They can inspire follow-up articles. Twice I’ve written a follow-up article for the Washington Post because of questions raised by commenters that made me think and expand on ideas that interested readers. One instance was simply a lot of “we want to hear more!” and the other was “we’re not so sure we’re convinced; what about x,y, and z issues?” Comments can tell you if there is more to be said. Even angry or rude comments, in their rawness, expose differences and passion – the places where the most interesting conversations and writing often are.
If you choose to respond –that is, if you even choose to read, which of course you don’t have to – always keep your cool. You are the professional here. Make it hard to treat you as anything but a living, breathing human being. Thank them for their comment and for their passion. Resist the urge to stoop to their level. Think of yourself as the parent, while they are the child throwing the tantrum.
But, just as with a wailing 3-year-old, we certainly don’t have to like it. We can always give ourselves a timeout, shut the laptop, and walk away from the tantrumming commenters. This too shall pass.