05 August 2015

How to cushion the blows when writing online.

Writing online is like putting a message in a bottle and sending it to sea. We never know whether someone will handle it with the same care that we did writing it.

Writing online is like putting a message in a bottle and sending it to sea. Precious and fragile, our words go on an undetermined journey. We never know who will find them. And we never know whether someone will handle it with the same care that we did writing it.

Every so often (fortunately once in a blue moon - and it was a blue moon on the weekend!) a hater (or vocal dissenter) comes along and I doubt everything that I'm good at. I feel fraudulent. I worry that having an opinion makes me a bad person (it doesn’t).

Criticism can be hard for writers – perhaps more so for those of us who share personal stories. Our identity is linked to our occupation, so it can be hard not to want to curl up in a ball when we receive a negative comment.

I wrote a piece last week – first for Daily Life and then for my blog. I’m so proud of doing so, because it’s a topic I feel strongly about. But it was polarising. I received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback – even from a group I didn’t expect – parents of children with disabilities. Countless people emailed me thanking me for writing it, and asking for advice and telling me their experiences of having their stories shared by others. And many disagreed with my piece too, which I expected.

But even respectfully expressed differing opinions need some cushioning. And hurtful comments (direct or indirect) need a glass of wine and camembert. Writing online is tough.

These are the things I’ve learnt about cushioning the blows when creating and writing online.

There will always be someone who disagrees with you.

Not everyone will like what you write. Have you enjoyed every article or blog post you’ve ever read? I haven’t, and I bet you haven’t.

And playing it safe doesn’t keep you safe from disagreement. Even if you write about chocolate and fluffy Labrador puppies, there will be some people who don’t like chocolate and puppies. Luckily the internet is big enough for everyone’s opinions. And everyone’s opinions are valid.

Pic of brown labrador puppy, quote: "Even if you write about chocolate and fluffy Labrador puppies, there will be some people who don’t like chocolate and puppies."

Unless you're spurting hate, your opinions don't make you a bad person.

I’m no Katie Hopkins, but every so often I want to be brave and address an issue I (and others) feel strongly about. Being an activist sometimes involves starting (and enduring) difficult discussions. It doesn’t mean I hate people or judge everyone. I’m not angry or looking for issues ALL the time! I’m often writing because I believe in a cause for inclusion or change.

(I really like what Leela Cosgrove said about women having opinions.)

Your blog is only one facet of you.

People often aren’t reacting to you as a person, but to your words. That doesn’t make it easier to take, I know, because your words are you, but as Taylor Swift sings, try to ‘shake it off’. I remind myself that most people who leave awful comments only know me from the 500 or so words I’ve written online. They sometimes come to my blog not knowing why I write about disability and appearance diversity issues. They say their piece and leave, maybe never returning to read future posts.

You can’t be responsible for how someone interprets your words.

You carefully wrote your post, including your opinion and sought others’ for balance. You spell checked it. You used kind, considered words. But then a reader spots a typo, takes offence at a single sentence (I'm guilty of that!) or feels like you aimed the post at them. They might get really upset because of their own experiences (that you might not be aware about). And they let you know – directly or otherwise. Their interpretation will always be different to your intention.

Through writing online, you get to know yourself and form connections in like-minded communities. This can be great for personal development and networks, but can also narrow your view, perhaps making you assert yourself a bit too often. (And that's why I think it's important to read widely and include lots of other opinions in your writing.)

And sometimes people in your life outside of your writing/activism communities won’t understand where you’re coming from. Sometimes you’ll upset them. Apologise if necessary, and help them understand why you write and how you want to make a difference. I have used a simple quote to explain:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jnr

It’s not weak to apologise.

There have been a couple of times recently where, while I didn’t write something offensive, I didn’t check people’s quotes properly. And I apologised to the interviewees and had my editor remove the quotes (and I didn’t include them on my blog when I republished the pieces). I’ve written to friends to clarify misunderstandings and discuss issues further in private. And I’ve said sorry.

Also, you’re not always going to be right.

You don’t have to welcome every argument.

I welcome and value differing opinions – I really do. I love learning about different perspectives and ways of doing things, and genuinely engage in conversations.

But those people who object to a differing opinion by sniggering through passive-aggressive social media posts, or only ever engage with me to tell me they disagree, or are rude or launch personal attacks – they don’t matter to me. The people who always back me (and this doesn’t necessarily mean agree with me) matter to me.

The noise in your head gets loud.

I received thousands of likes and comments on an A Mighty Girl post over the weekend, yet I couldn't get four or five dissenters out of my head. I was feeling like I’d let down a whole community (I hadn’t). I've had some pretty awful thought about myself these couple of days.

I try to circumvent this by saving all the wonderful words from readers and reflecting on those. I have chatted to lots of lovely people. And I switch off for a while and fill my life full of good things.

Believe in yourself.

Don’t let a few negative comments stop you writing. The people who will connect with you, and who you will help through blogging will far outweigh the nasties. Keep going, keep writing for you. Stand for what you believe in and believe in yourself. Make people think. Shake things up. Touch on the hard topics. Write bravely.

I stand by my words and I hope you stand by yours too. As my friend Brad said, “How would you feel about yourself if you chose not to write about something you felt was important?”

"I'm fully comfortable with who I am, what I stand for, and what I've always stood for." - Hillary Clinton.
I asked my online writer friends for their perspectives, here’s what the smart ladies had to say:

Annette talked about self care:
"I think you have to hold on to who you are away from blogging. If you're feeling weighed down by negativity or criticism, turn away from those voices, and do something that makes you feel happy. That can be sketching, baking, going for a walk, sorting out your wardrobe, chatting with a friend... do things that make you smile. Feed the positive, starve the negative."

Carly-Jay wrote about the importance of telling her truth: 
"The most imperative thing for me is that I write my truth - MY truth. People are always going disagree - it's the human condition - but it's a show of their character when comes to how they deal with that difference of opinion. If they bully, I figure that's their journey and I feel for them. If they troll *and* bully and choose to be passive aggressive, then I find myself thinking that they've been torn from some really bitter cloth and they most likely need professional help with their anger issues. I admire and respect how you write authentically with your morals and values in tact because so many people write blindly (ie. what their readers want to read) instead of challenging the status quo. And to end, a favourite quote from my love George Bernard Shaw - 'Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything'."
Celeste wrote about her motivation to keep going: 
"Sometimes I feel like a piece of shit and the only recourse I have is mocking the hell out of those who make me feel so. It's the "greater good" that keeps me going. I mean if I drop off the radar, how many other radical left Aboriginal feminist writers will be on the scene?"
Clem, who has written a few public apologies,talked about the importance of apology when necessary: 
"There are two possible answers to this, depending on the circumstances. The first is that if you stand by what you've written, you find faith in your convictions. Not everyone will be happy with your preoccupations or your activism 100% of the time, and that's fine. Having faith in yourself and strength in your voice is important, and you develop it precisely by being exposed to people's discomfort or displeasure.

But the second possibility is also valid and important, and that is having the strength to accept when you may have been wrong. Unhappiness or opposition isn't always unwarranted. In these times, it's the sign of a good writer and activist to be able to critically assess what you've written or said that's upset people. If you recognise that you may have been offensive or dismissive, or even taken a wrong turn in assessing something yourself, apologise. There is no shame in accepting fault and offering unequivocal apology for it.

Writing as a form of activism is hard and sometimes demoralising. Don't forget to pour yourself a wine sometimes and give yourself a break, both practically and emotionally."

Julie said: 
"Carly, I can say, hand on heart, that I don't care what 'people', in the general sense of audience, think. My post Think of the Child went viral, with more than 250,000 views on Facebook in the space of a couple of days, and given the subject-matter (children being raised by same-sex couples) there was a fair bit of negative comment. When I first drafted the post (before it was published) I checked with the family it was about to see if they were happy for it to be published (they were), and then again when it started to go viral (as I would have pulled it if they were uncomfortable). They were the only people whose opinion mattered to me."

Kate said readers have every right to an opinion as writers: 
"If you're true to your core moral and ethical beliefs then it is truly an opinion piece and readers have a right to feel a certain way, just as you have a right to your opinion. If it's a shitty, passive aggressive post then maybe call your therapist instead."

Nat reiterated the ‘wait before publishing’ rule: 
"If you write it, read it again an hour later. If it still rings true and feels good, publish it. If someone hates it, they needed to hear it and they will learn from it. If they never talk to you again, they really really needed to hear it."

Pip was wise as always: 

"I know that it can really hurt when people disagree with or even attack your views (however well researched and sensitively they are communicated.) That said, it's often those with a vested interest, who you have touched a nerve with, that respond the most angrily.
I think it's SO EASY to 'keep the peace' and not say your piece. But it's important to actually have some impact and be heard, in life I think. Even if that does mean shitting some people up the wall.

My feeling is that as writers and humans we have a responsibility to use our voices to talk about the important stuff (even if that is the difficult stuff.) I like it that you do that - that you choose to (kindly) say your piece - always diplomatically, sensitively and fairly.
I think in the blogging community there is a real trend towards 'shooshing' other women when they speak up about important stuff. Words like bully or shame are thrown about and personal/group attacks are used to shut discussion down.
I'm not sure why people can't just say 'thanks for putting your view. It upset me and I'm kind of freaking out. I am going to go and digest this - see where things sit after that' kinda thing, rather than trying to PROVE the writer wrong, change their mind or SHOOSH them up.
To continue to feel good about myself when others try to shoosh or diminish me - I look at brave people who didn't shoosh - and I try to imagine what they'd do.
For instance:

WWCFD? <-- what would Clem Ford do?

WWSYD? <-- What would Stella Young do?

Then I'd talk to my online besties, and offline friends and family about how I was feeling and generally we'd all agree that it's important to talk about the BIG stuff. And then I'd feel a bit better. And eat a biscuit. And maybe have a TINY cry about the whole thing, just to get some closure."

(And I do silently preface a lot of my writing with "What Would Stella Do?"!)

Prue said: 
"I couldn't give a rats arse about whether people agree with me. You don't like it - close the fucking browser window!"

Roni wrote: 
"My self esteem and worth aren't tied up into what strangers think. The opinions of people that don't matter in my life simply don't matter."

Trish said:
"I have a couple of rules I made for myself. Rule No. 1: Everytime I write something or do something I do it in the knowledge that SOMEONE is going to disagree or not like it. It is my simple rule of life. It happened before I got sick and has been happening since humans existed. While I am happy for people to voice their opinion (after all that's what I am doing) I require that it stays in a mutually respectful way. If they break that rule than I am sorry but they don't have an point of view they have a disrespect problem. I ignore those people. People can also be competitive and when you get in posting "war" you can not win with them. 
Rule No.2: Resilience. No one has ever expressed an opinion that has bought my life to end and my resilience to keep going and stay focused on things I want to achieve in my life has always floated back up. There are many people out there, if something we do/say means or helps something to someone than its worth it."

How do you cushion the blows?

Edit: this is a great piece on what to do with too much feedback.

And also:

Here's what I think today.

Expressing an opinion openly is not bullying. Disagreeing with someone's opinion is not bullying. But the way a person goes about expressing or disagreeing with that opinion can be.

Online bullying is not only name calling, ridiculing and death threats.

It's the pack mentality of dissenting opinions that slowly build up. It's creating passive aggressive memes or social media statuses. It's tarnishing reputations through 'Do Not Link' tools. It's writing undermining comments. It's forgetting there's a person behind the screen. It's forming an opinion of someone based on their words alone. It's calling friends over to view and enjoy the fallout. It's invalidating someone's opinion and experience relentlessly. It's the idea that writers put their opinions out there so deserve whatever others dish out. It's slyly pushing people out of professional partnerships. It's only ever interacting with me when they disagree.

It's enough.

I never receive this incessant disagreement or people wanting to have the last word in my day job. So why should I put up with it when it relates to my online writing? Why should we?

These bullies are not welcome in my corner of the internet.

Write bravely, my friends. But be kind too.


  1. This is just gorgeous Carly and it is so lovely of you to give other writers some support along with great advice xo

  2. Great post Carly. You are a true example of how to handle negativity, graciously. For the record, I like your writing and your voice is so important. Keep writing and please hold that head up high. xx

  3. A great post Carly on an issue that effects a lot of people online.
    Sometimes the smart arse remarks on our businesses on social media are hard to believe. Sometimes I want to jump on there & correct people with the same aggression. I never would of course.
    But as my husbands 95 yr old Grandma says "there's a lot of good people in the world, & then there's the d**kheads, try too ignore them if you can". Cracks me up to hear her swear everytime!


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