I still remember the first time someone left a scathing comment on my blog.
I had written about an encounter I once had with a stubborn old man who lived in a briny mansion on the edge of the ocean. His property was worth millions, but he clung to his decaying home and his view of the sea because it was worth more to him than all the money in the world.
My reader didn’t buy it.
How could I remember all the details of an event that happened nearly a decade ago, she demanded? How could I recall the word-for-word conversation I had with a crusty old sailor about life and eternity?
I couldn’t have, she said.
I was a liar.
I had broken the sacred trust between author and audience.
She had lost all respect for me, and she didn’t hesitate to leave comments on all my social media sites telling my readers that I was a fraud. She would be unsubscribing from my blog and unfollowing me, but not before she took as many readers as she could with her.
It was a gut-punch.
I was nauseous, hurt, confused, and angry all at the same time. I could not comprehend how anyone could so misunderstand my intentions as a writer. Never before had anyone reacted to my words with such vehemence.
I wrote five different responses to her comment, and deleted them all. The first was sheer justification. “Did you even read the story?” I demanded. The second was an education on the art of writing and the definition of the word “true.”
By the time I got to the fifth response, God had done a work in me. I ended up weeping for the woman who was so broken, she felt she had a right to break me too.
I realized then that writing, like any other ministry, means being vulnerable and more than a little exposed to criticism. Most readers understand the kind of nakedness that comes with writing and respond accordingly.
But there are a few who see the written word as an open invitation to argue, berate, and even slander the author. They read blogs not to learn, but to find fault.
If you blog for any amount of time, you are likely to encounter one of these broken people. When that happens, it is helpful to keep the following in mind:
1) Hurtful comments are not personal.
As much as you feel like you live your life out in print, irreverent readers often forget that writers are real people. They use words in their comments that they would never have the audacity to say to you in person because they feel safe in the anonymity of cyberspace.
Strangely, they may also feel a sense of ownership over you and your words. By virtue of their reading, they feel entitled to correct or rebuke you, demand information from you, or simply say whatever they want to you because, after all, you have said whatever you want to them.
Be very careful not to respond with similar forcefulness. Remember what your insensitive reader forgot: the person on the other side of the screen is a real soul. Handle it with care.
2) Writing is a two-way relationship.
Unless the only words you write begin with the phrase, “Dear Diary,” your writing is one- half of the communication equation. Your reader is the other half.
Some readers will get your message loud and clear. Others may interpret your words in a way you never intended. A few rare ones might not get past the title before they’ve condemned your piece as heresy.
Hold your words loosely. Once they are out in public, they are not just yours anymore. Do your best to write clearly and carefully, but be prepared for a variety of responses. If you must correct misinterpretations, do so lovingly. If you have a difference of opinion, state it respectfully. And if all else fails, delete.
3) Be teachable.
No writer is infallible. As a community, sometimes, we mess it up. We do not write lovingly or carefully. We mislead. We offend. We slander. If we write at all, it is almost guaranteed that at some point, we will write mistakes. It doesn’t have to be intentional to be wrong.
If a reader calls attention to an error, whether technical, moral, or otherwise, do your best to make it right. Apologize in the comments. Correct the error. Strive to do better.
More than anything, learn to appreciate your readers’ input. Consider each comment and search for the truth, even if you have to sift out the rude words. Becoming a great writer often means listening to and learning from your worst critics. Let their sharpness sharpen you.
If you write long enough, you’ll certainly encounter an irreverent reader or two. If you respond to them correctly, those readers will only make you into a better writer.