Let’s be nicer to writers, please

Writing self-doubt

Angry phone messages. Nasty emails. Completely vicious comments. If you’re a writer, then you’ve probably received these at least once, if not dozens of times.

It breaks my heart that writing is the foundation of so much in our society, yet most people have virtually zero respect for the people who contribute. Those television shows you watch religiously, the books and movies you adore, the websites and blogs you keep coming back to. Sure, when writing is bad, it’s bad. It’s OK to say so; sometimes, you’re doing the writer a favor.

be nice or leaveThat doesn’t mean making him or her feel like the lowliest, most repulsive, most worthless creature on the planet. But for writers, especially those on the web, that’s an everyday reality they have to live with. They have to learn how to ignore it and move on because this is how they make their living, or it’s so much a part of their gut that they can’t stop writing and wouldn’t want to, anyway. Easier said than done.

A couple months ago, I wrote a review of a PC game for a major outlet. I’ve played the genre before, and I think my critical assessment of the game was fair. But people still flock by the hundreds (even thousands) to view my article, leave a hurtful comment, or walk away thinking, “What a joke.”

The comments ran the gamut from sexist (“She probably only got this job because she’s someone’s girlfriend”) to the ridiculous and unintelligible (“You’re stupid. This game is worth a 9.5 at least, and you should quit”) to the downright mean. I won’t list them here. I won’t link to it.

At first, I dismissed them. I laughed them off. “These people don’t know what they’re talking about,” I thought, and went over every single comment, rationalizing to myself why that person was wrong. And for the most part, I do disagree with them. Fans can be pretty crazy. But I also realized I had made a very grave mistake — one that kept the comments pouring in.

writing is a challengeMy headline was shit.

Now, my editor can probably tell you that when it comes to headlines, I struggle. I envy those who can turn a lifeless, 9-word title into an irresistible wonder that generates thousands of hits in traffic. So because I’m bad at them, I often try extra hard to make them creative and interesting. And sometimes when you try hard, you try too hard.

I finished that game late at night (midnight, if not later), after playing for about three days almost completely straight. I dragged myself to bed every night and just collapsed. Then I got up early the next morning, did my normal routine of writing and editing, and focused on the game for 6-10 hours before doing it all over again the following day.

All the readers who left those heartless comments didn’t know how thoroughly I had explored the game or how long I had labored to finish and review it by the day of release. None of them knew how I grappled with the headline before settling on something that needed an extra pair of eyes and didn’t get it (my fault — I should have asked). None of them guessed that I’ve been playing games my entire life, or how much I pride myself on doing good, honest work.

Most all of them assumed I wrote a purposefully incendiary headline designed to get cheap hits or to “challenge the average” or something. At the time, the sprinkling of websites reviewing the game on launch day gave it at least a 0.5 higher score than I did — and if you know gamers, you know how big of a gap that is to them. It’s stupid, but it’s how it is. (Days later, more sites rolled out their reviews and leveled out the field, so mine wasn’t so extreme after all.)

you are smart beautifulI realized that if I had submitted my review with fresher eyes (not easy when you’re sleep-deprived and on a deadline), I would have probably given that headline another shot. And I probably could have explained what I meant by it a little more clearly and succinctly in my article. But mostly, it was those first five or so words that cost me all my effort.

The more comments I read, the more difficult it was to ignore them. “Maybe I do suck,” I thought. “Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. I wish I hadn’t even bothered.”

It took a couple months before I regained my confidence, but it’s still a challenge to deal with every day. Every time I write a headline, I’m terrified I’m going to endure another episode of the same magnitude. I doubt myself. That makes me do worse.

Even if I never encounter this problem again ever in my life, I’ll always remember it. In a way, it’s helped. It’s made me appreciate a good editor’s guidance and the value of precise wording.

But my experience also proved how cruel and thoughtless people can be toward writers. Only a few of those commenters bothered to think that I would be reading and decided to show any human decency. While they were moving on to criticize other articles on the web, trashing websites and writers whose work they probably read regularly, I was fighting back tears and losing my desire to write at all.

be nicerI wanted to tough it out and forget about it, but the truth is, I can’t. And maybe I shouldn’t have to. Maybe there’s a lesson in here for other writers who have yet to face this kind of crisis, and it’s not just, “Be careful what you write.”

The message is, “Hey. I’ve been through what you’re going through. It’s OK. Don’t listen. Don’t read what they’re saying. Chin up and keep going. Because you ARE good at what you do. You’re not perfect — sometimes you’re going to write total crap, most of the time you’re going to fix that crap and make it better, and even less often, you’re going to blow them the fuck away. Just. Keep. Trying.”

Because all the people who put you down, ignore you, and mock you don’t do what you do every day. And they certainly don’t understand the sacrifice every writer makes by dedicating hours of their time and far too much of their soul to working at a craft that’s so important but so rarely appreciated. Right or wrong has nothing to do with that.

10 thoughts on “Let’s be nicer to writers, please

  1. catstronaut

    100% agreed.

    Writing on the internet has become politicized, and any opinion or phrasing that differs from the reader’s is considered a power struggle. People will read a sentence or phrase and, since they likely don’t remember any other work by the writer, they take that to be the only thing that writer has to say. When a writer has a differing opinion or off day, all of a sudden they are just the manifestation of that one thought. It’s bullshit.

    When responding to a comment/article that upsets you, take two and a half seconds and ask yourself if that’s the way you’d treat somebody in real life, if you could see their face when they heard it.

    1. Stephanie Carmichael

      You narrowed it down exactly when you said, “all of a sudden they are just the manifestation of that one thought.” A writer is not her article. Thank you.

      We all need to be make the extra effort to be much kinder to people on the web and in real life. Attacks, verbal or otherwise, are not justified. They’re not correct solutions for negating people’s opinions — they’re only tools for negating the person himself.

  2. katkasia

    What can I say? That really sucks is what springs to mind. I haven’t read your reviews of games, but I have read a lot of your blog, and I find you highly articulate and engaging.
    I suspect it’s a bi like driving: when people get behind the wheel they are much more willing to be rude and agressive because it’s not face-to-face. Online comments are even less personal, although just as wounding. Good on you for taking it as a learning experience – not easy to do.

    1. Stephanie Carmichael

      Thank you for your kind words! They mean a lot to me.

      I’ve definitely learned from the experience, but it was hard, and it still hurts a little to think about. I didn’t expect those comments to bother me so much, and it wasn’t until I stopped reading them that I was able to start feeling better and see the situation clearly again. It just shows what a profound effect those comments can have on a person, especially when the negativity is en masse. I wish people would stop to consider someone’s feelings before making criticisms of any kind. These were purely insults.

  3. Elizabeth Hall Magill

    You are absolutely right that every writer has to face these comments, particularly those who write on the web. I’ve had them (my latest was “get a life,” which I found ironic); other bloggers I know have had them–women get them with a fire that can only be fueled by fear. Don’t let it stop you, and don’t turn it against yourself; even if you’d written the best headline in the universe, you would have gotten comments like this. The comments are verbally abusive; they are bullying. And the only way a bully ever wins is if you internalize his or her message, if you search your writer’s soul with self-doubt and find an excuse for the bully’s words. You are a wonderful writer, Stephanie, and you are doing exactly what you should be doing. The more you do it, the more you draw on the inner power that your words give you, the more you will find that you can develop an inner shield against such nonsense. You define yourself by your eloquence; they define themselves by their abusiveness. The words stand for themselves.

  4. Sarah

    This infuriates me, then breaks my heart that it’s you that has to go through this. Not to take anything away from anybody, but sadly, this seems to be the way of the internet these days. Comment sections have turned into free-for-alls, they’re like a contest on who can be nastiest. Personally, I think people are mean because they want to feel good about themselves. Putting others down is a ridiculous, stupid way of doing it, but then, look at who’s doing it – small minds.In THIS case, I suspect a lot of it comes from jealousy of you and what you’re doing. Which just pisses me off, because you are not only a great source of writing expertise, information and ideas, you’re also a true inspiration.

    My Dad always told me, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” It fits perfectly here. Those people are the small stuff. You, Stephanie, are not. You’re an intelligent, thoughtful and VERY talented writer. Don’t let anything prevent you from believing that, even these small people. I know it’s hard, believe me. And when you find it seeping into your self-confidence, find me. I’ll remind you just how good you are. In the meantime, just keep telling yourself how well you’re doing and how far you’ve already come. It’s pretty amazing, and you’re gonna take your writing career a whole lot farther in the years to come. I firmly believe this!!!!!

    1. Stephanie Carmichael

      I think that when it comes to gaming, it’s part jealousy as you said and part defending what these fans/commenters love. I get to act as an authority, and that’s a position a lot of people clamor for. So understandably, they want me to do my job well. And while I could have done it better — I could have been clearer in communicating what I meant — I also wasn’t wrong, and fans take defending their passions much too far. It spins out of control fast. And it seems like everyone on the Internet is allergic to an opinion that’s different from their own.

      Thank you for all your sweet and considerate words, Sarah. I’m so thankful for all of you and the support you’ve shown me here! I’m glad I shared my story.

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