Notes From a Hired Pen

Responding to reader emails

Late last night, I got an email from someone in response to my story about runners and pedicures that recently ran in The New York Times. It was not pleasant.

The writer’s beef was that I used a colloquial phrase. I’m not going to reprint her email here, but she insulted me three times, suggested that this one perceived mistake would haunt my writing career forever and ever, and then called the NYT copy desk dodos.

This happens a lot. I more often get emails telling me I’m a moron than those offering positive feedback.

How to handle snotty emails? Depends.

Option 1: If the error is genuine, then tell your editor, no matter the tone of the email alerting you to that error. No one’s perfect, and mistakes happen, so do what you can to fix it, and then let the writer know that the problem is being addressed.

Option 2: If there is no error, and the person’s just being a jerk, ignore that person. Some people try to make themselves feel better by lording a perceived dominant intelligence, especially over a person who is publishing in popular places. Hence, I’m not replying to this writer.

Option 3: Send a short response if you feel comfortable doing so. When I wrote about female runner harassment, I received a lot of screeds, some by women, telling me I got exactly what I deserved. My response to all of them was “thank you for your input.” Yes, that’s a passive aggressive way to ignore someone, but sometimes that’s the best response to a person who believes a woman getting grabbed while running and a 16-year-old allegedly raped at a parade are responsible for what happened to them.

When someone emails me to say that he or she enjoyed a piece, I always answer. When I wrote about running and depression, I lost count of how many readers reached out and told me their stories, and some of those emails were thousands of words long. I read every one and replied to every one. Those emails make up for the jerky emails I get, like the one that came in last night.

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