Patheos Peeps: Adam McHugh on Dealing with Criticism

Every Friday, I post a link to a blog post written by one of my fellow bloggers at Patheos, a web portal devoted to religion and spirituality. I encourage my blog readers to click through to read these posts, comment, and if you like what you read, follow these bloggers as well.

(OK, I’m cheating a little bit this week. Adam McHugh is actually not a Patheos blogger. Adam currently blogs on his own at Introverts in the Church. But he will be a Patheos Peep before the year is out. Patheos is publishing Adam’s next book, he will eventually join the Patheos blogging team, and he has written occasional posts for Patheos in the past.)

My book has been out for about a month, so I’m beginning to read reviews. To my relief and excitement, most are complimentary. But of course, not all of them are positive. This week, when a critic lifted a sentence from my book, presented it in isolation, and implied that I was saying something I was not saying (in fact, I was saying almost the opposite), my fingers were itching to dash off a response.

But I didn’t. I posted about the urge on Facebook, knowing many of my writer friends would sympathize. Then I kept my hands busy making a casserole. Adam sent me a link to a post he wrote recently on this very thing—a list of five things to do in response to criticism. I had already done #1, which is to Avoid the knee-jerk reaction. It’s excellent advice for writers and anyone whose work makes them vulnerable to public criticism.

Later that same day, I came across a post by Christina Katz (“The Prosperous Writer”) listing 10 Things Never to Do on Social Media. Number 3 on her list was:

Never walk away from a bully. Always stand up to a bully, even if only momentarily. If we don’t, soon the Internet will be crawling with bullies. On the Internet, a bully is a person who puts down others or treats others disrespectfully for their own glory.

For a minute, I was torn between her advice to confront online bullies, and Adam’s advice to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Many experienced folk in the writing/publishing world are with Adam on this. They advise not to engage with critics, particularly when they get personal or nasty. My “policy” is that I will gladly engage a critic if he/she presents an opposing viewpoint in a way that indicates that he/she is open to conversation; respects me as an equal, as knowledgeable, and as a fellow Christian (when I’m writing on a religious topic); and uses courteous language. But I won’t engage a critic if he/she is questioning my integrity, knowledge, faith, qualifications, etc.; willfully misinterpreting what I wrote for his/her own purposes; or resorting to name-calling or inflammatory language.

So what about those bullies? Do we engage or not?

I think it is unwise for the person being bullied to respond. As Adam says, such heat-of-the-moment “reactions do not help the conversation and usually only come across as immature and insecure.” Think about the classic schoolyard bully situation. Although the movies might occasionally give us a heartening scene where the bullied kid knocks out the bully with a hard right hook or a clever turn of phrase, in real life, bullies often take anything that their prey does and twist it for their own purposes. This happens in cyberspace too.

But I do think it’s important for other readers to stand up to bullies when we see them going after writers. Last month, I posted four ways to be a good neighbor in cyberspace, and #4 was: Stick up for your neighbors. Calling out bullies may not change their behavior, although I’ve seen a very few incidents where a nasty commenter has come back and owned up to being overly critical and mean-spirited after someone called them out. But even if standing up to the bullies doesn’t change them, it does improve the overall atmosphere online, and gives writers confidence to be bold and honest, knowing that others will support us when we are under attack. Again, this advice echoes experience with schoolyard bullies. Successful anti-bullying efforts often involve creating an atmosphere in which bullying is not socially acceptable, while standing up to bullies is.

Of course, not all criticism qualifies as bullying (thank goodness). But it all hurts on some level. Adam’s five recommendations are vital for writers if we are going to keep putting ourselves “out there,” knowing that some people will misinterpret or just not like what we have to say.

What do you think? Stand up to cyber-bullies? Or let our silence send a message that their contributions are not welcome, and that they don’t bother us (even if they really do)?

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Carol D. Marsh

    Ellen: Never having been cyber-bullied, I cannot pretend to be an expert, but I really like the idea of having friends and colleagues on whom one can count for calling the bully out. I think the greatest and most insidious power in bullying lies in the fact that others know it is going on and allow it. Allowing bullying includes turning away, staying silent and the like. This can only empower the bully. As for the person being bullied, somehow, no matter how careful she/he is, she ends up sounding a lot like the bully, if not absolutely descending to the level of bullying herself. It’s a very thin line.

    For those of us who respond, I think we should use polite, compassionate language; forbear to respond in kind; keep our message short — no rants; and add a bit of encouragement for the bullied one, or maybe a compliment.

    Keep writing. The fact that you are being cyber-bullied shows you are doing something meaningful.

  • Helen Lee

    Recently, I wrote a post on a group blog for which I am a contributor; it was just an “introducing myself” post, and the first comment was from someone who chose to post someone else’s negative review of a book project I was involved with five years ago. It had nothing to do with my introduction, and it was, I think, his not-so-subtle way to express his displeasure at women being co-contributors with men on this blog. Anyway, I decided that I would not rise to the bait of contradicting the actual review, but to show that I wasn’t affected by his decision to do so. The other great thing was to see my fellow contributors rise to my defense and take this commenter on, which has helped to bond our little community even closer and give us the feeling that we are a team, that we have each other’s backs, that we support one another. When the negative commenter kept persisting, I jumped back into the fray again with a challenge: instead of posting someone else’s negative review, respond with specific ideas on which he disagreed with me so we could have a civil, courteous, robust conversation. He has not commented since. I felt it was important for me to end on that note—to “take on the bully,” so to speak–to demonstrate that I wasn’t afraid of dissenting opinions, that I welcomed an honest conversation, and that I wasn’t taking offense to his cheap shot. Judging from his reaction, I was satisfied that I did the right thing in this case. There will be times in which you do have to let the trolls be trolls. And I completely agree with Adam to avoid the knee-jerk reaction. But I also agree that it’s important to stand your ground and show that you are not intimidated when trolls come. And yes…come they will, for those of us actively blogging! Thanks for this very relevant topic!