What I’ve learned from reader comments

by Amy Chavez

With most publications having at least a part of their content online these days, it’s only a matter of time when as a writer, you’ll have to deal with the dreaded “reader comments.” Whether it be a traditional newspaper site, content marketing site or even a review of your book on Amazon, you’ll likely be praised and criticized by some of the best. And worst.

What writers used to call “hate mail,” limited to a missive between the writer, author and the publication, is no longer private and is now posted for all to see, and scrutinize. Whereas previously op-eds were published in response to an article, they were also mediated and edited for language, brevity, and suitability. No longer so.

But there is a difference between comments and commentary. The author is offering commentary, an expanded idea they’ve put thought and research into. Commentary can also be merely opinions of a particular specialist, essayist, pundit or author, the category most of us fall under if we are not reporters.

Online reader comments, on the other hand, are usually reactions to the commentary. Reactions, by nature, are emotional and seldom backed up by fact-checking, rigorous research, or even writing skills. Furthermore, commenters aren’t concerned with those things because they usually have their own agenda. Fair enough, because you have yours too, which is what prompted you to write a thought-provoking essay or book.

As an author, I think it’s important to remember that you are not asking people to agree with you. If they do, great. If they don’t agree, that’s fine too. Rather, the success of an article or book should be judged by answering the following question: Does the piece provoke discussion? Many things, especially subjects that people don’t like to admit or talk about, need to be presented in a way that prompts awareness. If discrimination is wrong, for example, it’s not enough to presume that everyone knows this (even though they do). We need to discuss why it is wrong.

If your writing provokes discussion, then read the discussion and learn from it.

Unflattering and discriminatory comments

The quality and number of reader comments depend on the publication. The Japan Times, RocketNews24, Japan Today and the Huffington Post all cater to vastly different audiences and this is reflected in their reader comments.

Some comments may be merely unflattering to the author while others are outright discriminatory. While I’d like to think that most people can tell the difference, apparently many cannot; if they could, I believe more people would not make so many arbitrary comments. Asking an American author, “Why are you so bigoted?” albeit derogatory, is a fair question. To extend that opinion to all Americans, as in “Why are Americans so bigoted?” is discriminatory.

People even extend such annotations to Facebook, where surely they must realize that hundreds of people, including friends, will be judging them. The other day, someone was complaining about an editorial judgment made by The Japan Times. That person’s Facebook friend remarked, “Trying to learn something from the ‘Muricans, eh?” That’s just not acceptable. You can think that, of course, but once you say it, it becomes public and subject to scrutiny. Unfortunately, such attitudes are pervasive in comments sections whether they be public or private forums, penned anonymously or not. While most adults complain about children sharing too much online, I notice that adults also don’t realize how much about themselves they are sharing online.

Negative comments can also offer you clues as to what you might be doing wrong as an author. Perhaps your tone was a bit condescending, or you under-estimated your readerships’ background or grasp of the topic. Or maybe the title of your article (which is often determined by an editor, not you) didn’t match the content the reader expected. It’s possible that the reviewer of your book may have felt his or her book/blog/website on the same subject was, naturally, better than yours. Then again, maybe the commenter is just an asshole. Like it or not, this is all to be expected in the online world.

One thing I’ve learned however, is this: Do not change your writing style in order to please this audience. Once you start compromising your own writing, it’s no longer yours. And your prose will most likely sound flat, boring, and unchallenging. Passion sparks discussion.

Click here for an earlier WiK interview with Amy.