Columns and criticism: How to cope with an unexpected reaction | Women's Agenda

Columns and criticism: How to cope with an unexpected reaction

Opinion pieces are an interesting beast. A good column can provoke thought and discussion, and be shared thousands of times around the internet. A bad column will sink without a trace, the worst possible fate for any piece of writing. But it is often impossible to predict which ones will hit the mark and which ones will tank.

I write several columns a week, scores per year. And there are times when a brilliant idea will descend on me, as if gifted by some cosmic muse. I will labour over every word, choosing the perfect phrase, and send it off to my editor knowing the piece will soar. I am sure it will resonate with every reader. I am positive it will attract hundreds of comments.

Sometimes it will. But frequently, the pieces I consider to be genius don’t have much impact at all. And I am stunned to realise that I completely misjudged.

At other times, I will struggle to come up with a concept. I will scrape the bottom of the barrel of my imagination, and jot down a fairly lame piece in desperation, knowing I have to file a column the next day. And then I will sit back and watch in absolute astonishment as the post does brilliantly, attracting innumerable likes, shares and retweets across the web.

“Seriously?” I’ll think to myself. “That one?”

You cannot predict what readers will like and you cannot predict what will resonate. And it certainly has nothing to do with the effort you’ve put in. I have written columns in seven minutes flat and had them do brilliantly, and spent a good couple of hours on others that have failed. It’s frustrating, but it’s all part of the job, and you just have to keep on writing, hoping that you’ll hit more than you miss.

But it’s not just the number of shares that is hard to predict. It can also be difficult to foresee which pieces will attract criticism, and which will not. Obviously there are some subjects that will inevitably be a magnet for dissent; try writing about vaccinations, or abortion, or Middle East politics, or even breastfeeding, and you are sure to be condemned by a percentage of readers. You can never please everyone – after all, there is no such thing as a universally shared opinion – and as a columnist you are prepared for that.

However, sometimes you are hit with criticism when you least expect it. I have written what I considered to be fairly innocuous pieces – humorous anecdotes about motherhood or marriage, or social commentary on an item of news – and been absolutely slammed. Generally there are more supporters than denigrators but the criticism can feel quite overwhelming.

There are times when certain readers wilfully misunderstand my intentions but there are times when they have legitimate viewpoints that I have simply failed to anticipate. Usually I can cope well with criticism, and I can certainly respect opposing points of view, but I have been distressed by comments that I perceived to be completely unjustified. And, as with any situation, I can be more or less sensitive, depending on what else is going on in my life. If I’m feeling robust, I might respond to the critics, and try to either turn them around, or at least thank them for their opinion. If I’m not, then I will not look at comments at all. We all have to protect ourselves.

Criticism is inevitable when writing and sharing opinions is part of your job, a job which I am fortunate to enjoy. But I will never cease to be surprised by the reaction to my work.

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