One of the most humbling things about being a writer is being reminded that you are not nearly as original as you like to think you are. I was reminded of this when famed super-lawyer Alan Dershowitz told New York Magazine that he's considered publishing a book of some of the hate mail he's received over the years.
He's not alone.
Every time I receive a kooky piece of mail, or elicit a wacky comment via social media, I'm tempted to convince my agent that instead of working on another book that I actually have to write on my own, we should just publish some of the reactions my writing has elicited from others. (Possible titles: "To Keli with Love, hate, and occasional indifference" or "Your writing sucks, but not nearly as much as that outfit you wore on tv yesterday.")
Thanks to my post on the brewing birth control battle engulfing the Obama administration, I now have a wealth of new material. As usual the responses ran the gamut from sane, ("I completely disagree with you for x, y, z reason") to insane but entertaining (the charming individual who wanted to register his displeasure with my post as well as with my appreciation of Betty White, which he apparently finds offensive, comes to mind.)
As I explained to a friend who recently asked if I mind when people leave nasty comments about my blog posts, I don't mind receiving unflattering feedback for my work nearly as much as I mind receiving no feedback at all. (I realize this puts my fiercest critics in a quandary. For that my apologies.) If you're a writer and no one's criticizing your work that means very few people are actually reading it. After all, even Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway have their detractors, and I'm nowhere in their league. But as I noted on The Dylan Ratigan Show, one thing that does get under my skin when it comes to my critics: poorly crafted criticism.
Apparently I'm not alone in finding lazy criticism annoying. I've been told that a few people, among them talk show host and uber-tweeter Piers Morgan, have been known to correct angry mail and tweets that they receive for typos and grammatical errors.
So below, a list of helpful hints to help you or the self-appointed critic in your life, draft an effective piece of hate mail (or critical mail to be more precise), blog comment, or social media response that actually provokes thought, and possibly a reply from the intended target, as opposed to simply provoking chuckles from them. (Or causing them to forward it to others for chuckles as well -- not that I would know anything about doing that.)
1) Actually read the piece.
This one is non-negotiable. If you have time to type up an angry paragraph to someone, then you have time to read the piece you think you are angry about in its entirety. If you do not, then you are exactly like those people who don't bother to vote then sit around complaining our ears off until the next election. I have lost count of how many times people have sent me emails, tweeted or left comments all over the web criticizing a post I wrote for not addressing a specific point -- only that point could easily be found in paragraph two of my post, if only they'd bothered to read that far.
One of the most amusing recent examples was when someone alleged that one of my posts must have been written by a man, because it failed to include Eleanor Roosevelt on a list of "the Most Influential white Americans who have helped shape Black America." (Click here to see the list in its entirety.) Can any of you guess what's wrong with that statement? You know, besides the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt -- photo and all -- was very much on the list? Even funnier (in an embarrassing kind of way for those involved) was that people piled on with "Yeah, exactly!" which meant they didn't bother to read it either. Apparently this level of laziness in the comments section of blogs, in particular, has become such an epidemic that the media site Gawker has begun banning commenters who leave comments that make it clear they either lack basic reading comprehension or are too lazy to finish reading the fairly short pieces on the site to conclusion. As the saying goes, "Reading is fundamental."
2) Don't just say you disagree. Say WHY.
I hate to break it to you, (and this will probably earn me a new pile of hate mail) but there is not a single blogger, pundit, author etc. who cares that you "strongly disagree." Not a single one. A stranger telling me "I don't agree" in cyberspace is right up there with a stranger stopping me on the street to say, "I really don't care for your outfit. Just my opinion." Okay. Thanks for sharing, but since I don't know you, and didn't get dressed specifically for you, your opinion doesn't carry the same weight that statement may from someone I do know and whose opinion I value. (And before you ask, yes everyone enjoys compliments, on the street or in cyberspace. But while we may appreciate being told, "You look nice today" by a stranger, it still doesn't carry the weight of being told by the person you're dating, or even your mom.)
However, while we may not care that you "strongly disagree," you know what we do care about? Knowing that you strongly disagree because of a fact or piece of information that we overlooked or neglected to address in our work. One of the most touching notes I ever read was in response to a piece I wrote on my feelings that some LGBT and progressive activists were turning Carrie Prejean into a conservative martyr. A member of the LGBT community wrote that while he appreciated where I was coming from, he wondered if perhaps I was too young to recall the damage that Anita Bryant, who like Prejean had initially been dismissed as "just a beauty queen," had done to the LGBT community and that this perspective and history was missing from my piece. He was right.
Of course if all he had written was "I want you to know that I completely disagree with your piece on Carrie Prejean. You are too young to know what you're talking about." He may have felt better after, but he would have missed out on an opportunity to educate, which brings me to number three.
3) Avoid name-calling.
I know it's hard to do in the heat of the moment but when you go to write a letter, comment or tweet, I encourage you to take thirty seconds to ask yourself what you are seeking to accomplish with your words. If your sole goal is to vent, then by all means have at it. Say what you have to say, knowing that it will be permanently out there, somewhere, on the record. That means a potential employer may see it or your friends. Increasingly writers are publishing racist and homophobic emails in their entirety via their social networks and allowing the public to respond accordingly. In fact, one woman alleges she was fired after a homophobic email she allegedly sent to a blogger was published. But if your goal is to get your point across and be heard, or to change hearts or minds, you can't engage in name-calling. The moment you do the person on the receiving end ceases to take you seriously and either hits delete or stops reading. Also, hate to disappoint the name-callers out there but I know very few people in the public eye whom name-calling actually bothers. The moment people resort to it we tend assume that either A) they are high-strung/slightly unstable (aka crazy) or B) they are REALLY crazy or C) we've gotten under their skin.
Now I can't speak for everyone, but if I've gotten under someone's skin to the extent that the only retort he can come up with involves calling me a name, I feel pretty confident that I've done my job for the day.
4) Be witty.
Humor can absolve a lot of sins. I've actually had people completely eviscerate pieces I've written but they've done so with such humor that I can't help but laugh. Anyone whose ego allows him or her to do a job that involves being in the public eye should have the capacity to laugh at herself. If she doesn't, she's in the wrong line of work.
5) Provide Context.
My general rule of thumb is if someone is nice enough to take the time to write me a letter, and they don't sound blatantly crazy (i.e. threatening my life or spending the entire correspondence engaged in name-calling) I will try to write back. I don't always succeed, but I try and I'm happy to do so. But sometimes that's harder than others, especially when I receive a note that doesn't mention what blog post or interview appearance the person is referring to but all I do know is that he or she thinks I sound, "RIDICULOUS!!!" (Always in caps.) Which brings me to tip number six.
6) DON'T USE CAPS. Do use spell check.
Caps denote shouting. I am happy to engage in a conversation, a dialogue, even a debate. I will not engage in a shouting match. (At least not with someone I'm not related to.) And if you are criticizing someone else's intellect or writing capabilities, your own writing should not have glaring errors in it, such as when someone recently referred to me as a "SELOTUS." I was perplexed until a friend helpfully explained the critic in question apparently meant to call me a "Sellout." (Now I enjoy a game of scrabble as much as the next person, but next time give me a heads that's what we're playing.)
So in conclusion, the difference between an effective note and a not-so effective one? Well see below. Can you guess which is which?
Example #1: KELI GOFF YOU ARE AN IDIOT AND I COMPLETELY DISAGREE WITH YOUR STUPID TIPS.
Example #2: Keli, I just want you to know that I found your tips for writing the "perfect piece of hate mail" perfectly useless. Here's why: (Feel free to fill in the blank...)