10 Tips for Dealing with Online Criticism

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Bâillement hystérique' photo (c) 2011, Bibliothèque de Toulouse - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

Each week, I receive between 400-700 comments on the blog, a small percentage of which are critical. Every day, one or two people will take to Twitter, Facebook, or their own blogs to tell me I’m doing something wrong.  As someone who has always struggled to receive criticism graciously, without throwing things, blogging has been an instructive endeavor, a refining fire of sorts. And so, for those of you who find yourself in heated conversations online, I offer a few tips I’ve learned along the way:

1. Wait. No criticism seems constructive at first, so step away from the computer before responding. Go on a run, practice centering prayer, throw something across the room, hang out with friends, bake a freaking cake if you have to. Then, when you come back, the constructive criticisms will surface as such, and you can respond with openness and grace instead of getting defensive. 

2. Engage the positive. If, out of 200 comments, 199 are positive, encouraging, and constructive to the conversation, and 1 is negative, my natural tendency is to go to bed that night stewing over the single negative comment.  (Same goes for book reviews. If, out of 70 Amazon reviews, 68 are 4-5 stars, you better believe I’m going to click on the two three-star review to see what the heck that’s all about.) This is human nature, of course, but what I’ve been telling myself lately is it’s not fair to the 199 readers who took the time and effort to add something personal, thoughtful, wise, and encouraging to the conversation when I only remember and engage that single negative comment. I am essentially giving the one negative person more power than the other 199 people combined! When I allow myself to be as connected and engaged with the positive comments as I am with the negative comments, it’s amazing how my attitude changes. Suddenly I become deeply appreciative of my readers, ready to engage in the most constructive elements of the conversation. I go from being Cruella de Vil to Ann Voskamp in a matter of seconds. 

3. Don’t feed the trolls. A troll is a supernatural being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore who lives in rocks and caves and is at enmity with mankind.  A troll is also an angst-ridden 18-year-old who dumps nasty comments on your blog that are so mean, so off-topic, and so totally out of left field, they’re not worth engaging. These comments are meant to incite discord, and often they work. As a blogger, the very worst thing you can do is encourage this sort of behavior by arguing with a troll. My advice is to delete trollish comments right away before they hijack the conversation. Remember, no one has a “right” to post on your blog. It’s your space; you want to make it as welcoming to guests as possible, and sometimes that means sending the drunk uncle out the back door. 

'Troll of Norway' photo (c) 2009, christoph.grothaus - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

4. Leave space in your heart and mind for constructive criticism.  Like it or not, sometimes your critics are right. Sometimes they see something in your attitude, your assumptions, or your position that needs adjusting. Through the years, my readers have pointed out several blind spots in my life, and I am incredibly grateful for that. 

5. “Always assume there is someone in the room who knows more about the topic at hand than you do.” I put this in quotes because it’s something Dan always says. (Dan’s a super-smart guy, by the way. In fact, I daresay he’s likely to be the person in the room who knows more about the topic at hand than you do.) In addition to leaving space in your heart, mind, and blog for constructive criticism, be sure to leave space for folks with more expertise to refine and augment your ideas. When I first started blogging, I felt like I had to be the authority on everything I wrote about, and when that authority was “questioned” by someone who knew more about the issue than I did,  I freaked out. I got defensive. Now, after a few years of trial and error, and after realizing my readership includes astrophysicists, anthropologists, Hebrew scholars, actual pastors, and actual parents, I’ve learned to step back and learn from the best. Your goal as a blogger is to START conversations, not finish them. Now I consider it an honor to have people who are significantly smarter than me weigh in in the comment section. In fact, one thing I love about our online community is that the comment section is often a better read than the original post! 

6. Memorize this prayer from St. Teresa of Avila. I say it almost daily. 

7. Disarm critics by being nicer than they expect you to be. Once, a blogger writing for a complementarian organization wrote a scathing critique of my next book....back before I’d even sent the final manuscript to the publisher! The article included several factual errors and a lot of assumptions about my motives for taking on the year of biblical womanhood project. I was mad at first, but then I realized that the woman writing the piece, and the readers chiming in in disgust, were simply defending against what they perceived to be an attack on their lifestyle and choices. No wonder they were upset. So I left a gentle, gracious comment correcting the article’s mistakes, apologizing for not making myself more clear, and clarifying my intentions in taking on the project. It was amazing to watch as the tone of the comments took a dramatic turn for the positive. You never lose ground by being kind. If anything, you give yourself a better chance at actually being heard. 

8. Apologize. I’ve felt compelled to issue an apology a couple of times on the blog, and often in the comment section....because, you know, sometimes I’m wrong...and mean.  

9.  Ask yourself why some criticisms hurt and others don’t. Criticism can play an instructive role in your life when you pay close attention to your reaction to it. For example, I am not at all phased by an email informing me that I am headed straight for hell for believing in evolution and “worshipping at the monkey god’s feet.” (Actual email, folks.) Why not? Well, because I know for a fact I do not worship a monkey god, (except during the new moon festival, of course), and because I am not afraid of going to hell for believing in evolution. (Maybe I should be, but I’m not.) However, a comment critiquing my writing style or challenging me for struggling to find a church will send me to my pouting chair in a matter of seconds. Why? Because I am insecure about my writing and about my search for a faith community. Those critiques touch on actual fears, actual frustrations. They hit closer to home. So if you want to learn something about yourself, pay attention to the criticisms that affect you most deeply, and make an effort to start praying through those insecurities and fears. 

'Monkey God Hanuman' photo (c) 2010, Craig Conley - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

10. Don’t let the praise carry you too high or the criticism drag you down too low. The truth is, excessive praise can be just as destructive as excessive criticism. The more popular your voice becomes online, the more likely you are to build up a fan base that includes a few readers who think you can do no wrong. Handing over your heart to either the lovers or the haters will turn it into a football, fought over between two “teams.” Here’s my advice: The minute you feel you are losing ownership over your emotions by handing them to your fans or your critics or your Google Analytics, STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Instead, spend some time with people who actually know you, like, people who live in your hometown and know what your laugh sounds like.  As much as I value and appreciate my online friendships, the most important people in my life are the ones who know me outside of my writing. These people know about my tendency to exaggerate, my messy house, my super-ugly glasses that I have to wear when my contacts dry up, my inability to solve very basic math problems, my bleeding heart, my baking skills, my cooking disasters. And they love me anyway. These people love me for who I am, not what I write down or how I “perform.” And so they are the best ones to tell me when I’ve gone off track, to offer advice, encouragement, and constructive criticism.  Listen to those trusted people, even if they are just a few. Never allow your online supporters or critics to gain a louder voice than they have


See also: "On Growing Thick(er) Skin"

So, what would you add to this list? What have you learned about dealing with online criticism? Got any questions about online dialog for a seasoned blogger with a pouting chair?

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