Being a writer on the Internet is tough business these days. The criticism that is leveled at writers on a daily basis can be demoralizing and downright inhumane. Much of the criticism I see is from people who have not even read the piece that I wrote on that particular day. They make a comment purely based on the title. Since we pour ourselves into our pieces, we can tell when someone has actually read an article we’ve written. Either that, or I missed someone’s favorite item in the article and I hear about it.
When you finally land a freelance gig, you have to keep the momentum going that landed you that position in the first place. That momentum can slow when criticism begins to pile up. It is easy to criticize individuals who write on the Internet, whether as bloggers or professional writers. We can easily believe that our own worldview is the only worldview and we share that on the comments sections of various articles or blogs. The Catholic world, where I primarily write these days, is no different. We nit-pick at each other. There always has to be someone who criticizes or points out a believed oversight. Today I want to share with you a few thoughts on being a writer as well as suggestions for commenting on the published work of a brother or sister in Christ. I am going to share my view and experience, so that you can consider it the next time you go to comment.
1. Writers have a word limit, usually around 1500 words.
Most websites have a word limit around 1500 words. Some have even lower word counts and a longer article is usually for a special project. For people who do not like to write, 1500 can seem like a lot of words, but for a writer that is a very limiting space. It is even more limiting when we want to back up our articles with quotes or historical information. Bloggers are not limited because it’s their own space and they can write as much as they want, but to write for a publication means limits. Consider that the next time you are on Catholic Exchange, Crisis, First Things, Catholic Culture, National Catholic Register, etc.
2. We have to make choices in our work.
Much of what I write about is theological in nature and related to the Catholic Church in some way. When I write for the websites that I contribute to, I have to consider the audience, the mission of the site, and a topic. It is impossible for me to cover every single topic in one post. It is impossible for me to completely cover a topic in 1500 words. That’s what books are for. I do the best that I can to give the important information. When I worked as a linguist for the Navy, we called giving the main points a gist. When I write an article about a saint, theological point, or contemporary topic, I am giving you the gist. I give the most pertinent information. When I write about a saint, I have to pick ONE saint for the day. I cannot cover multiple saints in one article without doing an injustice to one of them. I pick the saint who speaks to me at that moment and I make the choice to learn more about them through research, intercessory prayer, and the writing of the piece. Most of the topics that I write about could fill a library, so keep that in mind when reading an article on the Internet.
3. We make inadvertent mistakes.
One of the hallmarks of charity is that we learn to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have chosen three websites to contribute to at this point, and they chose me. All of us are orthodox and desire to share the mission of evangelizing the world. These three websites do it in vastly different ways, but all with the same goal in mind. When a writer types a wrong date, phrases something wrong, or misses a typo, expect that it was an accident. If it turns out the phrasing was intentional, then consider if you have the knowledge, humility, charity, and ability to correct them. You may not be called to fraternal correction and maybe you are. Be prudent.
4. Writing is a very difficult discipline.
Writing is tough business. It is truly a gift that God gives certain people to be used in service of Him. There are days we have to force ourselves to write despite our mood or schedule. We have to come up with topics out of thin air. Yes, much of daily life and cyberspace provide a wide range of topics, but that doesn’t mean each article is easy. Some things flow out of us and other times it is like pulling teeth. Don’t assume because it is on the screen that it came easily to the author. Many pieces come from sweat and tears. Pieces that are written from deeply painful personal experience may have been written with a lot of sobbing involved.
5. Sharing our work in public is hard, and I mean hard.
Every single time I submit a piece to one of my editors or write on my own blog my heart begins to race. I get embarrassed because I have shared a part of myself in my work. It doesn’t matter the topic, there is a little piece of me in every article I write. I wait for the hammer to fall as people come out of the woodwork to criticize what I worked so hard to share. I write to share the Faith, but even that is not good enough for many people.
6. Editors are human beings too.
If we are a freelance writer for a large website, then we have an editor. They read every single one of our pieces and try to catch anything we may have missed during our editing process. They miss things every now and then. Many editors read more than 20-25,000 words per week from their writers. So cut them a break. Cut all of us a break. Yes, we will all make grammatical errors every now and then. It is not the end of the world.
A Few Words on Commenting About Our Work
Consider your training before you comment.
There are a great many lay Catholic writers out there, which is a good thing. There are a lot who have no formal theological training, which is fine. There are plenty of theologians out there who do write. Every Catholic should read the Catechism, but reading the Catechism is not even close to be the same thing as being a theologian. Theologians don’t just read the Catechism, they read the documents that are in the footnotes of the Catechism, while also learning thousands of ecclesial terms in Latin and Greek. Both serve the Church and are needed, but they are not the same thing. When we read an article by someone who is formally trained (I do not include myself here because I am still a student) we should consider whether or not we have the knowledge base to correct them. Humilitas is a good thing! Not every MA or PhD is correct, but someone armed with the CCC is going to be out of their depth pretty quickly. So, the Internet is not where we are King of the Mountain, it is where we can learn.
Do you really think the author intentionally missed your favorite thing?
Once again this goes with humility. It is not a bad thing if an author missed your favorite saint, item, song, book, theologian, etc. As I said above, we have a limited amount of space and we have to make choices. When there is more than one saint on any given feast day, I pick one saint to write about. I am trying to go deeper into the faith and that individual’s life. If I try to include multiple saints then I can only remain at a superficial level. If I am writing about Theology of the Body or some other theological school, there is no way I can give a full picture in 1500 words. Read the books I cite if you want more information! That’s how I learned. I read the books. Writers are limited and correcting us on your favorite item does no good. We are aware of those things, but chose to leave them out.
Stay on topic.
Please, please, please, if you are going to comment on one of our pieces, stay on topic. I do not respond to comments on my work that are not on topic. I don’t have time for those rabbit trails. If I write about St. Thomas More, then he is the only saint I am focused on for that day in my writing. If I write about Magisterial teaching authority, then all I am talking about is our obligation to obedience on that day, not prudential judgment. If I write about science and the Church, I am talking about the Catholic Church and not Young Earth Creationism (Catholics are not). If you are interested in genuine dialogue with the author, then write thoughtful, patient, charitable, and on point comments. We love to engage with our readers, but not when we can’t even understand what a person is talking about.
Check the sinful anger.
There is such a thing as righteous anger. It is the type of anger that leads us to pray Rosaries outside of abortion clinics and give up our job when people try to force us to violate our conscience. Ad hominem attacks, however, fall into the sinful anger category. Do not call an author names, even if they are the biggest jerk on the planet. You see what I did there. I personally leave discussions the minute they turn into personal attacks. It’s not worth it and the conversation has turned from discourse to a fight. When you become angry because of an article, consider first why you are angry. Did they strike a nerve? I can understand heresy making a person angry, but not sinfully so. Pray for them. There have always been heretics. If you can keep your cool and discuss the issue with them, then fine, but yelling, ranting, screaming, etc. does no good.
Think before you go full Grammar Nazi on us.
If we are writing for larger publications it is because somewhere, somehow, someone has seen our potential as a writer. You don’t have to agree with them, but that is what happened. Most of us have some knowledge of the English language. It doesn’t mean that we will not make mistakes, but it does mean that we are not uneducated and illiterate. Many of us are in, or have achieved advanced education of some kind. I am in graduate school. So, when you find an error, don’t go all English teacher on us. It is condescending and annoying. For me, I am quite happy to have readers correct my typos or errors. I pass them along to my editors. I don’t mind correction, but I mind people talking down to me. I am an adult and not sitting in your English class. Offer a quick, “There’s a typo here or a probable grammar error here.” I can figure it out without the English lesson. Fraternal correction, whether in the spiritual life or in matters of grammar, has a lot to do with presentation and tone. Just point out the error and leave it at that.
The Internet is a great place where people can exchange ideas and share the Faith. It is also a place of rabid anger and vitriol and that includes by self-professed Catholics. Let’s learn charity and humility in our dealings with people in social media. Before you share a comment, consider your tone and its applicability to the topic. If a writer doesn’t respond to your comment it is probably because it was too angry, off point, or unclear, or they are just too busy. All writers greatly appreciate their readers. We just ask that you treat us with the dignity and respect that human beings deserve. God bless.