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.
That 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.
My 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.)
I 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.
I 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.