Freelance Writers, Argument, and Comment Trolls

How to Handle Blog and Article Comments

This article is the result of a perfect storm of happenings out there in the internet ether. At about the same time that the national spotlight was focused on gun control with the related arguments and bickering about that issue, I (personally) was able to carve out time to finally set up my own personal blog (not writing nor career related, whew! my first!), and the blogosphere was having an ongoing discussion about internet and blog trolls and comments.

I had unwittingly got into a gun-control discussion with a family member that didn't go so well, and it was exhausting to me. I decided that I didn't want any of that soul-sucking kind of pointless arguing on my personal blog, especially given that it would likely cover political or controversial topics and instituted a policy at my blog focused on the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s quote "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."

Mere days later, I was able to put my MLK philosophy to use when I received a blog comment that was just the kind of senseless vitriol that (in the past) would have exhausted me.

Now, luckily, my MLK-based mentality and philosophy are serving me well in dealing with these issues. But I've realized there is more to say on this subject for freelance writers.

Difference Between Negative Comments and Outright Trolls

First, let's be clear.

All negative comments are obviously not trolls, right? If you write on topics such as politics and the like, you may end up garnering comments that are offensive to you or argue your point, sometimes even ruthlessly but don't necessarily fit the definition of an internet troll.

Trolls comment solely for the purpose of drama and are generally not worth your time or response.

However, your audience members, who respond with (somewhat) well-thought-out points, even if contrary to yours, probably deserve a response or an acknowledgment, at the very least.

Understand here that I am not equating the difference in opinion with trolling.

What Does Good Writing Do? It Elicits Response

Keep in mind that good writing should elicit a response on your reader's part. I've always pushed the idea that freelance writers should consider developing a niche. One reason for this push on my part is that I know that your niche work will quite often be in a topic about which you care, a lot. Writing from that perspective, paying attention to that care in your thoughts will likely pull that good syntax and well-developed writing out of you. You want a response to your writing when you write about the things that interest you. It's a good sign.

But, It's Not All Rainbows and Unicorns in the Blog-o-Sphere

However, despite your great care, despite your incredible prose, all the responses won't be butterflies and happiness. That's just how it is. I must yield here to Jessica Valenti, who says this much better than I: You won't always be liked. Your opinion won't be liked. Your writing won't be liked.

But, in addition to that, as you can see by my comment example above, sometimes you plain old won't be liked.

Valenti's article in The Nation was one of the main vehicles by which this discussion got started on the net at this particular time of writing. Valenti essentially says Who cares? Do you really need to be liked? Outright? All the time?

I say, concentrate on your craft and opinion. Provide your view, and support it. Employ clarity in both. Know what you're talking about and fighting for. Then, know you've done your best. That's what moves your career forward.

But HOW? Someone Please Tell me HOW?

I know it's so easy to toss out a one-size fits all approach such as "just ignore the haters" or "don't take counter-arguments personally." But, if you're just dipping a toe into this freelance-writing-online world, it might be much more difficult than that.

Let me promise you this to start: it gets easier. That first contrary opinion is a doozy. And, if it's better-reasoned and more clearly written than your post or article, that's rough! The first evil troll can knock you off your seat. But, mark my words here. You will get used to it. At this writing, I'm in seven years. Today, it's part and parcel. You tend to just shrug and move on.

Need more advice though? Well, in this New York magazine article (another one that is oft-quoted in the current troll discussion), Ann Friedman's answer is to sort the haters into a hierarchy. Put your efforts into ignoring the low-level haters and responding well to the higher-level ones.

Another option is to try to approach comments from a place of understanding. Can you attempt to frame that person's motivation? I discovered the way this works through applying my MLK philosophy. In order to approach people with love, you have to understand them. Sometimes, that means making a guess at their motivations. If I can read a bit into a comment in an attempt at understanding, then that automatically does two wonderful things for me as a writer: it puts me in a much better place to respond to the comment and it diffuses whatever negative feelings may have seeped into my psyche and exhausted me.

Last- But Best- Go Ask Your Editor

One last tip- and this is relatively simple- consider this: Do you have to even undertake this part of the work? Are you required to interact with comments?

Look, if your client or contract asked you to write X blog posts or Y articles, and you've completed your responsibilities, there may not be any reason for you to outlay more effort into divvying up trolls versus serious comments, or approaching random strangers "with love." Hey, you have other work to do, right?

Ask your editor or client for the policy on comment follow up; some websites take care of all those details internally, and you're off the hook! Others will want you to provide the moderation role, and you'll have to do so with their needs in mind. If there is an official comment policy available from the client, be sure to read it before you dive in with fingers a-blazin'.

Freelance writing is a different beast than it was even five years ago. Since most prose is now read online, you're saddled with the additional responsibility of dealing with reactions to your writing more than any writer in generations before you. It's part of the job, and you'll need to make your peace with it in order to succeed in this career.