5 Ways to Use Hate Mail to Your Advantage

By Rachel Kramer Bussel July 21st, 2015

As a freelancer whose main beats are sex and dating, I’ve always thought I had a thick skin when it came to hate mail; covering those topics as a women means you’re called some variation of “slut” on the regular. The beats aren’t for the faint of heart.

But when I wrote my first article for The New York Timesone that had nothing to do with bedroom antics—I discovered that my skin wasn’t as thick as I’d thought. The piece was about innovative ways libraries were using Instagram, a mild topic that I never expected could cause a stir.

Yet soon after it was published, I received an email that immediately negated any praise I’d received. The writer, a librarian, told me my piece was “an insult to libraries and librarians” and that I should stick with writing erotica—all because of a single phrase in the text saying libraries are, “by definition, purveyors of analog information.”

Now, I could see her point—modern libraries are using technology aplenty, which was precisely what I’d covered—but her way of making it ate at me. Had my words truly done the opposite of what I’d intended? My immediate impulse was to write back, sharing with her the details of the research that had gone into it, and my admiration for librarians’ work.

But I stopped myself; I wasn’t sure I could be measured enough to write a professional response. Furthermore, did that kind of email truly deserve a response in the first place? For writers, this can be a regular dilemma, particularly for those with controversial beats or high profile placements—and even for those covering more innocuous subjects.

So what is a writer to do? Before you shoot off that angry email, here are five things to consider.

Know hate mail can happen to anyone

While some topics seem to lend themselves to rabid reactions, the first thing you should know is that no topic is off limits to detractors. writer Rob Hart received the following note in response to an article condemning digital piracy: “Just wanted to let you know you suck. You suck as a person. If I ran into you on the streets I would punch you in the face. I would punch you again just to do it.”

His first reaction was to laugh—hard. “I wasn’t writing about the conflict in the Middle East, and this guy wanted to physically assault me. A life doesn’t get much sadder than that,” he said. He replied with a generic “thank you” and got a form of revenge by posting the email as an addendum to the article, after getting his editor’s approval to do so.

Adult industry professional Bella Vendetta said she’s gotten the most hate mail for her Thought Catalog essays about porn, but she also receives plenty for her music writing at Ghost Cult. “Metal fans are notorious for spewing hateful mail and comments,” Vendetta explained. “So if I’m writing about a band someone doesn’t like, it’s really easy for them to tell me I have no clue what good music is and, of course, it’s because I’m a girl.”

In other words, don’t take hate mail personally; it isn’t about you, and it’s as likely to happen when you’re covering publishing as it is when you’re covering porn. People have strong opinions, and even if it seems like they’re attacking you, they’re really attacking your writing. It may not be the kind of reaction you were seeking, but it’s perhaps a backhanded compliment: you’ve fired them up with your words. In the end, what’s important is how you choose to handle it.

Don’t always respond

There’s no singular guiding principle, but there are a few approaches you can take when deciding whether to respond to a piece of hate mail. Some writers, like Darlena Cunha, who received death threats to her and her children after writing a defense of the Ferguson riots, only responds to correct misinformation. Her attitude is, “I don’t need the last word because I already said my piece and the commenters’ lack of reading comprehension is not my problem.” That makes sense, considering she’s gotten mail telling her, “I hope your turkey burns.” On Thanksgiving.

Others answer on a case-by-case basis. Jennifer Rogers, Assistant Editor at The Washington Post’s Outlook section (The Post’s opinion section), said The Post has no formal policy on how a freelance writer should or shouldn’t respond to readers. “It’s completely up to them,” she said, though she did advise that if a reader has pointed out anything inaccurate, “I think the writer should say thanks and that the error is being fixed.”

For her own writing, Rogers ignores mail that’s purely a personal attack, but in the case of “people who seem sane but are merely mean, I do sometimes get pleasure out of responding ‘Thanks for reading!’ with a smiley face emoticon.”

According to Jordan Rosenfeld, author of A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, “It’s not usually a good idea to respond to hate mail of any kind because it’s rarely coming from a reasoned, logical place.”

Remember that if you choose to respond, you don’t need to rebut them point by point—this isn’t a debate. Like Rogers and Cunha, writer Neal Pollack doesn’t respond to emails that are incoherent, but to others, he’ll reply along the lines of, “Thanks for being in touch, I understand we disagree on this issue, but the First Amendment is what makes America great.” If he wants to clarify a point, he makes sure to do so “rationally and non-histrionically.” This is key, because if you respond to name-calling with name-calling, no one benefits, and you could make yourself look foolish should those emails get forwarded to your editor.

Michelle Goodman, author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide, warned that you need to protect your writing time, rather than adding to your workload by obsessing over these responses. “You may think you’re just going to take five minutes to craft the perfect reply and wash your hands of the matter, but when emotions flare, you can easily lose the better part of the morning,” said Goodman. “You’ll be chatting with your freelance buddies about it, posting about it on Facebook, and if the troll writes you back, getting bent up all over again and deliberating over whether to reply again and what to say.”

Beware the comments

Is there a difference between hate mail and venomous online comments? For most writers, there is, even if the sentiments expressed are equally cruel. Some make a policy of never reading comments, but email is harder to ignore, especially if the subject line just says “your article.” Who wouldn’t be curious enough to click?

Hart believes email is “more personal and intimate. People who comment on stories are looking for attention and adulation just as much as they’re looking to tear someone down. E-mail is much more direct. There are a few more steps involved, and clearly the sender is looking to convey something slightly more serious than a little screaming and arm-waving.”

As noted above, emails could wind up being made public, while comments sections already are. That’s something to note before you wade into them.

Rosenfeld said that despite her “don’t feed the trolls” mentality, she couldn’t help wading into the comments to defend her essay on The Washington Post: “I found myself viscerally compelled to respond a couple of times because I made the mistake of taking it personally. It never made things better, and it got me unnecessarily worked up.”

Responding to comments leaves you susceptible to looking like a poor sport, and can further exasperate your angry mood since you ultimately have no control. Unless your contract asks you to engage in the comments—as xoJane’s SAY Media contract does for a one week period after the article’s publication, or if your editor asks you to—you are probably better off avoiding the comments section altogether.

Understand what hate mail really is

As writers, we’re often more sensitive to a hurtful barb than others. That doesn’t mean you have to wallow in frustration, however. Pollack said it’s important to put hate mail in its proper place. In almost every case, it’s not you—it’s them. “People do not hate you,” Pollack pointed out. “They disagree with something you’ve written. This is not a personal drama on your part. Allow yourself to be upset for an hour or a day or whatever, and then move on.”

For Hart, the potential face puncher was easy to laugh off, but those who deliberately twist your words for their own agendas are more of a challenge. “It’s tempting to say that if someone misinterprets an article you can open a dialogue. But that’s so rarely the case,” he said.

One strategy for keeping your cool is to follow the lead of Huffington Post contributor Jenny Block and read your hate mail out loud. When she did, “I could hear how silly and sad and stupid they person sounded. I actually felt sorry for them.”

When the tone of hate mail turns dangerous, it’s probably time to alert your editor, and perhaps make yourself less easy to contact. “The first time someone wished death upon me, I became terrified and asked my editor to remove the link to my email from my byline,” said Goodman. Similarly, Hart changed his website to include a contact form, rather than listing his email address, in order to protect his privacy.

Turn hate mail into bylines

Author and journalism professor Susan Shapiro once spent 12 hours poring over comments on a post before her husband came home and wisely intervened. Since then, she’s developed a smart strategy: turn the feedback loop into a profitable one. “If I get pissed, I try to say to myself, ‘Is there another piece in this?'” she explained.

When she wrote about the downside of marijuana use in the Los Angeles Times, she got angry emails and phone calls from impassioned pot devotees. Rather than respond directly, she used their words for the lede in a new essay for Newsday. It’s a strategy that also worked for Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who mined comments such as “You should consider not having any more babies” on a Salon essay about postpartum PTSD into a New York Times article on trying to engage with her detractors.

If you’re getting bombarded with emails or the comments section is blowing up, you know there’s interest in the topic. And rather than driving yourself crazy responding, you can use the haters’ actual words as fodder to extend the life of the first piece, plus get paid for a second one.

By using what Shapiro calls the built-in “drama, conflict and tension” of your reaction, you can add energy to your new piece. If you need proof, look no further than what you just read. So in a roundabout way, I guess I owe that librarian a thank you.

Image by Dario Lo Presti
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