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WRITERS' ROOM 101: Slings and Arrows

TV writer Eric Haywood discusses how to deal with the slings and arrows of angry internet comments.

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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A while back I wrote about how, as writers, we should be particularly mindful of how we use social media. Firing off a snarky insult aimed at an actor, director, TV show, or even an entire network might feel good in the moment and garner a few laughs, but it can easily come back to bite you in the ass. That’s because there’s just no way to know – whether you have 50 followers or 50,000 – if a tweet or Facebook comment might take on a life of its own and land in front of someone you hope to work with one day.

But there’s another side to this coin, and it’s best summed up with a single question: what happens when you – yes, you – end up on the receiving end of one of those insulting social media comments?

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Think it can’t happen to you? Trust me, you don’t have to be a high-profile writer or a name-recognizable showrunner to experience this. In fact, even without any experience at all on a writing staff, you already know that every TV show has its share of fans as well as its detractors. And once you are on staff, if you’ve chosen to maintain a social media presence and aren’t shy about letting the world know which show you write for, it’s pretty much inevitable that sooner or later, you’ll receive comments from people who either love or loathe the show. It just comes with the territory.

The former, obviously, are easy to deal with. Everyone appreciates a kind word or two. But the latter? Well, let’s just say that at some point, you’ll probably find yourself wondering how noble it is to suffer the slings and arrows of the average internet troll.

These days, it’s not simply a matter of pitching ideas in the room and writing the best scripts you can for your show; as a TV writer with a Facebook or Twitter account (or Vine or Snapchat or whatever), you also have to take into consideration how interacting with the public online can potentially impact your career.

Whether you’ve spent years jumping through hoops before landing your first professional writing gig, or you’ve already been staffed on one or two shows and are just now starting to get the hang of things, one thing is almost certain: you will have developed a strong personal attachment to the show you’re writing for. You pretty much have to. Spending all day, every day (sometimes even on weekends) devoting countless hours to making every episode as strong as possible naturally lends itself to feeling proud of what your team accomplishes week after week.

So when a total stranger pops up out of nowhere with an unprovoked attack on the show – or on you, personally – it can be a little hard to swallow. But I urge you to let it slide. You already know that “Don’t feed the trolls!” is the internet’s standard advice for how to deal with these types of people. Sometimes, though, that’s easier said than done. I mean, sure, you can always ignore or block them, but who wouldn’t want to defend themselves when attacked? Why should you have to take the high road while someone’s heaping scorn upon you? You’ll find that biting your tongue can be a real challenge.

And yet, unless you’re a particularly savvy social media user, my advice is to do just that.

Because here’s what you don’t want to do: you don’t want to get into an online pissing match with someone and inadvertently give the impression that you’re speaking on behalf of the show. That could very easily backfire on you, and no amount of cleverly-worded disclaimers in your bio (Tweets are my own! They don’t reflect the viewsofmy employer!) can keep you from landing in hot water with your showrunner or network if you say the wrong thing.

You also don’t want to find yourself accused of “punching down.” Even if you’re the lowest-ranking writer on your show, lashing out at Gary from Tupelo, Mississippi because he said the episode you wrote sucked can easily get twisted into some journalist’s click-bait article (“Snobby Overpaid Hollywood Writer Attacks Poor Innocent Fan!”) on a slow news day.

Having said all that, I offer the following in the interests of full disclosure: from time to time, I’ve failed to heed my own advice. Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with an excessive amount of negativity hurled my way over the years. But every once in a while, for whatever reason, someone decides to vent their frustration and they to pick me as their target. And I generally ignore it.

But sometimes, depending on my mood and how much time I have on my hands on a given day, I’ve said, “Screw it” and returned fire at someone who attacked me out of the blue. I shouldn’t do it. It’s genuinely unwise. But some days, I just can’t help myself.

So, if you’re like me and occasionally like to live dangerously, try to keep these guiding principles in mind:

  1. Do not defend your show. No matter what. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it’s a battle you can’t win. Look at it this way: you’re a writer on a TV series, and some anonymous person is trying to get under your skin by telling you that the show is awful. What possible chance do you have of getting them to change their mind? None. Zero. Their opinion was cemented long before they ever hurled their first insult at you, so trying to win a debate based on the merits of your show is a losing battle.
  2. Tweet as if there’s an executive from your network looking over your shoulder the whole time. Even though you’re not offering yourself up as the official spokesperson for your show, you could easily get dragged into a heated argument that causes you to slip and say something you shouldn’t. And what will you do if some random Twitter battle ends up costing you your job? Is Gary from Tupelo gonna compensate you? I doubt it.

It’s not news that the internet can be a pretty hostile place. And sometimes it’s the self-proclaimed “biggest fan” of a show that’s quick to unleash the most venom because they feel their fandom and support of the show gives them the right to say whatever they want when they’re unhappy (pro tip: it doesn’t). Other times, it’ll be people who just plain hate the show and/or have convinced themselves that, since you’re one of its writers, they’re justified in hating you personally. And last but not least, there are the frustrated would-be writers who seem to feel that your career success is the reason theirs has stalled.

In any case, there’s very little you can do about it. I promise you, nowhere in your contract will it state that you’re required to just sit there and be someone’s whipping boy (or girl). But at the end of the day, you’ve got to decide what’s more important to you: winning the battle or losing the war.

Stay focused on what’s really important: doing the best you can at your job and developing a thick enough skin that these kinds of comments just roll off your back. Because as far as I know, IMDb won’t let us put, “I totally slayed a troll that one time!” on our list of produced credits.

But, man…how awesome would it be if they did?

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