‘Dear Editor’ – the consequences of reader feedback

“Every year, I like (?) to reprint some of the mail I receive from those people who don’t cherish my column as intensely as I might hope,” so writes Jack Knox in his January 5, Times Colonist column ‘Nastygrams to our [beloved] columnist Jack Knox’. The reported messages are pretty strong. Some contain references to his journalism specifically, but many are personal attacks on his looks, personality and politics. An article can draw vitriol from two different sides – for being both too strong a supporter of, and too weak an advocate for, a particular topic (climate change for instance). There are hints towards Jack’s personal safety too, which as a female writer I might be less bullish about sharing in public. Jack’s summation though is this: “I know I’m in a privileged position, for which I remain profoundly grateful.”

Reader feedback is an interesting topic to me.

I’m both a freelance writer, and also the Editorial Director of a monthly publication, Seaside Magazine. The writer part of me is always anxious to know how what I’ve laboured over is received by its audience. Did I get the tone right? Was it relevant or timely? When I’m writing I often visualize ‘a reader’ and imagine their reaction. Will they find me trite or cute? Have I said anything of substance? As Editorial Director I feel protective of my writers, but also defensive of the pieces we have chosen to publish.

I got my own “nastygram” earlier this year. A reader wanted to let me know that he found my writing “a juvenile attempt at self-reflection [that] illustrates a kind of narcissistic writer’s ego.” This came in response to my ‘Last Word’ a letter-to-the-reader style of column at the end of the magazine. It surprised me. Alright, it hurt my feelings. Then those words “juvenile” and “narcissistic” got stuck in my head. I reread the column. It certainly sounded like me. Am I juvenile? Does writing about my own experience make me a narcissist? I have to admit that I got stuck in a place where I started to really doubt: not just my writing, but also the idea behind the column; the way we make our decisions at the magazine; my prospects at earning a living from writing; my whole life really. This one reader started an existential crisis in my world!  

Taking my bruised ego out of the equation it still raised the question of what writers should do with the feedback they receive. Surveying my Seaside team the majority felt they received little feedback, and might appreciate more. Paula Kully told me she finds strength sometimes in the feedback: “a fellow writer/reader emailed me with criticism about a particular sentence in an article that I enjoyed writing and felt was quite good. At first, I felt somewhat offended and embarrassed but after rereading the sentence in question, and really researching the sentence structure, I realized that there was no error and that the critique was perhaps a difference in opinion and writing style. This incident did two things for me as a writer: it encouraged me to take criticism without offence but consider it as a valuable learning experience, and I learned to trust my voice and style even if it isn’t always what everyone else connects with.” 

Editorially the person who speaks up can hold alot of power. As our Editor-in-Chief, Allison, remarked: “knowing a column is very popular with our readers, or vice versa, would certainly be the main factor determining its longevity, and I’d imagine we would set our personal feelings aside (i.e. if we loved the idea of a column but knew it was not being well read by readers, we’d nix it).

So those readers hold a lot of sway, and the ones who speak up often have the most power. Writing in the Sunday Times newspaper, British comedian and writer David Baddiel discussed the same concept: “The power will always go to the most negative person in the room, and the attention to the loudest, but there are millions of others in that room.” (‘Why I feed the Twitter trolls, January 18, 2020). He was speaking specifically of social media, but I see this in many areas of publishing today. He continues with the larger point: “Culture is trapped now in a permanent second guess. Everyone is scared of saying the wrong thing or making the wrong decision…you don’t have to be on social media to suffer the consequences of the pile-on or the petition or the cancellation. But if everyone is frightened of getting it wrong, no one will ever be brave enough to get it right, and a bland future, where everything is declared a draw, beckons.”

I read his article at just the right time. I chose not to engage with my reader’s feedback, but I certainly spent some time ruminating on his comments, and I’ll proceed with my next column with care: not changing my voice, but making sure what I say will have some value to someone, even if not to him.