My mom didn’t invent this saying, but she sure loved it:
“If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”
Maybe your mom said that to you, too. Maybe it was when you complained about the one part of dinner–beets or broccoli, say–that you didn’t like rather than focus on the other parts of the meal that you really loved and for which you were grateful. Maybe it was when you said something unkind about another kid, even though you’d experienced the sting of being wounded by someone else’s words yourself. Whatever the scenario, I’m sure your mom pulled that stock phrase of parenting out of her play book and used it on you at least once.
I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot this weekend, as I process some of the criticism of my long-form feature on Roads + Kingdoms and Slate (a longer post about that coming soon) and as I’ve serendipitously come across some posts by other writers who have been feeling the sting of impulsive reader comments, like this one from The Joy of Cooking website. That post really resonated with me because the writers explained so personally and passionately the pain of working their asses off, spending lots of their own money on their work, and being as meticulous as anyone can be, only to receive sniping email comments about how the site could obviously function better or why in the world wouldn’t they post the recipe for chess pie? (Answer: Because they’d actually like to make a living by selling their cookbook).
I don’t want to be overly pitiful or pitiable about this–I’m fully aware that the hazards and downsides of most other jobs are far worse–but one of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer is that the reader almost never knows what happens in the making of an article or essay. They don’t know what you have to leave out, nor do they know why. They don’t know what gets changed along the writing-to-publication trajectory. They don’t know that you can read your own writing two dozen times, have two editors review it meticulously almost as many times, and still write “flaunts” when you meant “flouts” because, well, we tend to read what we meant to write, not what’s actually on the page. But the reader, of course, catches it, and then seems to think he needs to track down your email address and school you on your wrong word choice. (Yes, that happened.). And in most cases, they don’t know your larger body of work and they don’t know you, so they’re ever so quick to make assumptions about things that aren’t even related to the piece of writing they’re criticizing… like how much you’ve been paid to write the piece (and they always assume it’s been a lot).
Now I want to be clear: I am not against being critical. Criticism is good. It’s important. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more critical of herself and others than I. But I don’t know anyone who likes being on the receiving end of criticism that isn’t framed thoughtfully or which is presented in a sneering, hostile, or arrogant tone. Listen to Mom: If you can’t frame your criticism constructively, step away from the keyboard.
There’s another facet of this, too. Don’t just feel compelled to comment when you’ve got constructive criticism. Reach out to writers to let them know when their work touches, informs, or inspires you. I’ve been doing this more lately–even if it’s just to give a quick “Hey, thanks for your article about widgets” shout-out via twitter–and it feels good. I’ve taken photos of writers’ books I’ve seen on bookshelves in places where I’m traveling and sent them a quick note: “Hey! Look what I saw at the Hudson News in the Memphis Airport- your book!” Writers love this. Writers need it. It turns the line that runs between the writer and reader–often completely invisible– into a circle. It breaks the isolation that often traps the writer behind his or her byline. And often, it starts a conversation, relationship, or quick exchange about shared interests. It makes the writer feel good, and trust me, writers need to feel good because there’s a whole lot about our career that attempts to chip away at one’s sense of self.