Surviving Disapproval in the Digital Age
Unless you restrict your published work to the annual family holiday letter, sooner or later you are guaranteed to offend someone. Even among your relatives, your Aunt Karen could take exception to the way you describe the nativity scene at the Baptist church.
Having your work published is exciting but it’s also a little frightening. Like most of us, I want people to like me and like my writing. I want to put my best self, my best art out there. One of my first pieces was published in a local print journal. When I got my copy in the mail I immediately turned to my story and discovered a typo.
The sentence read “Her work space in the cubicle we share is decorated with stuffed bull dongs…”
It should have been dogs, “stuffed bullDOGS.”
Luckily this was a humorous piece. I emailed the editor and they corrected the error for future printings. I didn’t get any feedback on this story, negative or otherwise and I wondered if anyone else noticed the typo. Maybe they did and expected a different sort of story altogether.
I got my first genuine negative comment on an article I published here on Medium. The commenter took exception with the way I presented her hometown of Wichita Falls in the essay I wrote. When I first read her response I thought it was satire, but I noticed she included a jab at my hometown. I puzzled over it, and considered writing a response but decided the last thing I wanted was an argument over Wichita Falls, Texas.
The reader’s response bothered me, not because I felt she was wrong to take offense, but because I felt I had let her down with my writing. I thought I had written a humorous take on my relationship with my fiancé and my reluctance to change as we approached our wedding date. Somehow this did not come through for her and she saw only a criticism of her hometown. I think she would be surprised to learn that I love Wichita Falls and I’m sad that I didn’t express this more clearly in my essay. But I still don’t want to move there.
It is easy to love your friend, but sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is to love your enemy.
– The Art of War, Sun Tzu
Once I took the time to consider the negative response from the critic’s point of view, I learned I did not make my theme clear to the reader. Pay attention to negative comments, but remember they aren’t attacking you personally, they are responding to your writing.
“This stinks” isn’t a good starting point for revision, but it does let you know something might be rotten. Congratulate yourself on eliciting a reaction in the reader.
If you write and publish enough you will eventually uncover genuinely hostile commenters. These trolls are the reason people will tell you “Don’t read the comments!”
How should you handle these attacks?
You could respond with an insult from Shakespeare — I scorn you, scurvy companion. (Henry IV, Part 2, Act 2, Scene 4) if you have an afternoon to burn slinging words back and forth. I’ve found there are only so many times I’m willing to correct “your, you’re, there, and their” before I want to chunk a thesaurus at my screen. Remember you can block and report someone on Facebook and on Twitter. I don’t know if there’s a limit to how many accounts you can block, but if I hit the limit I’ll let everyone know.
You’ll be more likely to brush off hateful comments if you surround yourself with supportive friends, online and in person. Almost everyone I follow on Twitter is a writer. Find your “tribe” and you won’t face the trolls alone.
There are many great groups for writers on Facebook. Find one, join, post comments and share links to your work. Two that I belong to are The Tribe Builder’s Network and I Am a Writer with Sarah Werner.
Join a Meetup group for writers or start one yourself. Ask your local library if you can reserve a meeting room and post an invitation for a writing group in the library newsletter or calendar. Your church might sponsor a religious writing group. Sign up for writing workshops and network with your classmates, trade contact information and ask if they want to stay in touch for a critique group. I belong to a group that meets once a week at a local coffee shop. We read our work out loud and enjoy each other’s company.
Don’t be afraid to take a break from Social Media. There are many good things on the internet (cat memes, funny dog videos) but the negative can wear you down. Hatred and hostility come easily to some because there is that layer of anonymity in the digital world. You can counter that by forming connections, online and in person, with people who share your interests and beliefs.
When you do receive negative comments take a break and see if you can determine what the commenter is really saying. Remember they are responding to your writing, not the wonderful, marvelous person behind the words.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.