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I mainly write for academic journals (and creative writing for my own amusement), but from time to time, I publish opinion pieces in various mainstream magazines and newspapers, for which I am modestly compensated. Recently, some of my pieces have generated a large volume of online comments, some critical, some favorable, and some seeking clarification.

What is the best strategy in this situation? Is a modern writer expected to engage in these online discussions, or as a professional, is it better to "stay above the fray"?

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    That depends on what problem you're trying to solve. What is it you'd like to achieve in the comments section? – Standback Feb 23 '15 at 9:44
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    @Standback At the risk of sounding selfish, I'm seeking to maximize my personal brand as a writer with readers. I want when people get to the bottom of my articles, and see all the various reactions, to maximize if not agreement, but respect and appreciation for my writing. – user12678 Feb 24 '15 at 3:36
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    @Standback I hate to talk like that ("personal brand" - ugh), but I really enjoy having an audience for my views (other than jaded undergrads IRL), and given that my pieces spread far further online than in print, I want to control that reception, if I can, as well as endear myself to the fickle online audience – user12678 Feb 24 '15 at 3:41
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There's no single standard about this. Whether you engage your readers is up to you, in some cases up to your editor at the publication in question (or perhaps their policies). Barring that kind of guidance, here are the pros and cons of reading the comments and replying to them:

  • Joining the discussion can make you part of the community. This can create an image of you as accessible. You can reply quickly and easily, which may be a time-saver if volume is low. However, on larger sites, replying to comments can become a chore.

  • Refraining from joining in discussions can make you seem aloof, but it has the advantage of letting the participants discuss the issues unencumbered. You can always reply to comments at a later time in another article, if an issue is large enough.

It's also worth thinking about whether you're better at conversational writing or considered, careful writing that can be edited and cleaned up. Whether you even read the comments is up to you; there are communities where I'd suggest never even browsing them. But many communities have worthwhile things to say in the comments. You could always join the two approaches, commenting rarely when something can be easily cleared up, saving larger discussions for future articles.

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There's little to gain and much to lose by responding directly to online comments. For one thing, you have to be extraordinarily disciplined to avoid responding emotionally to criticism. For another, there are large pools of people who have raised to an artform the skill of drawing people into arguments (and goading them into making unwise responses they can then mock them mercilessly for).

As someone who has achieved the not-inconsiderable goal of publication in mainstream press, you have a loftier platform than the comments section. In general, I would stick to your platform, and leave them to theirs --after all, you don't want to risk a reputation that I'm sure took you a lot of time and effort to build.

There are, of course, some people who excel at interacting directly with their fans, and this can be a way for them to build a larger, more loyal audience, but if you want to go this route, make sure you go in with your eyes open. My best advice would be to put the same level of care, polish and professionalism into your comments as into your articles. Never be fooled into thinking you're in a private conversation.

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The best thing to do with the critism is to not attract yourself. There will be some who like your pieces and there will be those who don't.

As for your question, if you are expected to engage in online discussion, I say: make the choice for yourself. If you want to engage in a online discussion then it has to be your own decision.

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