The Art of Commenting: what holds us back and how we can fix it

The art of commenting

When people leave comments on your site, is replying a pleasure or a chore? And away from your blog, do you reach out to other bloggers through their comment sections and become an active part of their communities, or do you remain a page view shadow: a small, silent jolt up their stats, identifiable only by your place on earth?

In this post, I’m coming from the angle that while we certainly don’t need to leave a comment on a blog post we’ve enjoyed, it’s not good to feel inhibited or uneasy about commenting.

I’d love it if we all felt free to comment, if we wished, and understood the etiquette when we do. 

Commenting can be contentious

Watching classmates interact in the Writing101 commons has made me think. An assignment asked people to take a comment they’d recently left and expand on it. Responses ranged from short and sweet to lengthy debates. Arpita Pramanick wondered aloud why people following her didn’t seem to be reading her posts: a higher follower count wasn’t translating to views, likes or comments.

Others had realised all their energy was going into writing posts and they were hardly reading other bloggers’ posts or commenting much at all. I have one foot in that camp: for me, reading is the other half of blogging, but I don’t comment as much as I’d like.

I speak to strangers.

Always have, always will. I’ll happily communicate with almost anyone one to one, off the cuff. When I can see the person I’m talking to, I watch how they’re responding. If I notice I’m being misunderstood, I rephrase.

I write equally freely when no one is watching. When I’m going to hit the ’publish’ button, concerns start to creep in. I have less power to observe how people respond. Will other people be wise enough to assume good intent, even if my words were clumsy?

Aspects of commenting still puzzle me so I often hold back, even when I’m inspired by the post and have something to say. Pressing ‘like’ isn’t a problem, but I’m not sure that my footprints are always welcome in another’s online home. I’m imagining my reader sometimes feels the same.

When people go out of their way to be friendly, it’s a hard heart that ignores them. I read every comment left on my blog and I try to take a look at the site of everyone who leaves a particularly thoughtful or helpful one. But do I always reply to every single person to make sure they know their comment was appreciated? No, I don’t. No excuses, that’s just a fact.

Liking is easier

A like is halfway to a comment: it’s a possible response, a button offered to us by programmers as an easy way to acknowledge any of many positive states of mind. Liking’s uncomplicated.

I read other blogger’s posts quite widely. I often ‘like’ a post. Does that leave some other human need unsatisfied? Sometimes, I know it does.

Bloggers crave feedback

If you know me from the commons for one of the Blogging U courses, you’ll have observed me commenting and socialising freely. I’ll venture a guess that ‘repressed’ is not the first phrase that will spring to mind. But outside the commons, I don’t comment that much until I’ve become pretty familiar with the blogger.

That’s a pity because one thing that comes over loud and clear on every Blogging U course is that bloggers crave feedback. When we press ‘publish’, the last thing we want to hear is a resounding silence. Recently I’ve been asking myself why I’m too shy (or repressed?) to comment much outside the courses. By paying attention, I can see I’m far from alone. I believe it affects people from all points along the extroverts/introverts scale.

I’m sure you’ll have seen many bloggers putting themselves out there, trying to drum up support, asking others to read their posts and comment more. I can’t remember reading a post analysing why people are reluctant to comment, or to find bloggers wondering out loud why they so often fail to find the right words themselves.

Perhaps it’s blindingly obvious.

One long house party

You arrive unannounced at a party at a series of colourful private houses, open to the public, linked in ways you can hardly imagine. The party never stops. Space and time follow different rules here.

A click of your finger lets you pass freely from one room to the next without raising attention. Some homes are familiar, your regular haunts: others new.

You’re not introduced to the hosts. Guests from different nations enter rooms as anonymous shadows, though they’re automatically counted on the way in. Like you, they’re invisible unless they break cover by leaving some sign of their presence.

Some rooms seem quiet, empty. The host is speaking out loud, but no one has joined in yet. Will you be the first?

If you give a thumbs up sign before leaving, your picture is left behind in token of your approval. But many hosts seem to want more: they’re hopeful you’ll actually say something.

In your current room, you notice several guests have obligingly materialised and left comments. You feel safer here so you venture to say something, then quickly leave the room before getting a response.

More often, you merely watch as an outsider. Guests stand in line to give compliments or make observations, only rarely acknowledging the others alongside them. Hosts pass up and down the line like the Queen meeting the stars at a royal command performance.

You see hosts who are attentive to all their guests, effortlessly enjoying the party, finding the perfect response always on their lips. Others seem to have left the party long ago. Some hosts are clearly uncomfortable with the praise they are receiving, shaking it off as readily as a wet dog shakes off water.

Most hosts acknowledge some guests with thumbs up signs and respond to others with a personal answer. Some guests appear to have been ignored completely. Despite this, wherever there are guests, the atmosphere is convivial and supportive. In some rooms everyone seems to know each other: they’re bouncing with cheeriness, waving smilies at each other. It might not really be your thing, but you’re glad they’re having fun.

It seems OK for you to overhear every conversation, even the intensely private, tragic or confessional ones. You’re astounded at the bravery of some of the hosts: their lucidity and openness in the face of the things they’ve had to go through.

It’s hard to distinguish between the real, the embellished and the invented – but that hardly seems to matter. There are so many storytellers here.

If you linger any time at all, all of life seems to flash before you. You overhear pleasantries and jokes that make you laugh out loud; intense debates about serious issues that get you thinking; tragic events that move you. You see daily lives; glimpses of places you’ve never been.

One guest has already said exactly what you were thinking. Other responses perhaps seem a little inappropriate but who knows exactly the right response to a tragedy? Is there any etiquette you should be following? You’re invisible until you open your mouth to speak. Will you join in?

It’s a bit strange, isn’t it? That’s why it’s far from certain you will.

Do human beings need prompts cards too?

When we open a post and start to read, we have no idea what we’re going to find. Reading is the easy bit. It takes character to leave a public comment about a wide range of ideas and social issues on the blogs of people we have only just met.

Sci-fi fans watching the latest Doctor Who episode will have spotted his pack of neatly written human prompts cards. His companion has clearly provided him with ideas of appropriate things to say – social filters if you will – to help the awkward, alien Time Lord be more human. They included the (wildly optimistic):

‘No one is going to be eaten / vapourised / exterminated / upgraded / possessed / mortally wounded / turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.’

and

‘I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t care.’

The implication is that every human has comments like this at his or her command. And we do.


what’s the etiquette for leaving comments?

To break out of our self-imposed commenting straightjackets, all we need is a feel for the etiquette, some helpful tips on things to say and to start practicing. When in doubt, head straight to the Daily Post. Beyond that, the best way see etiquette in action is to watch how influencers we admire handle comments on their own blogs.

Some have likes and comments disabled (the brilliant marketeer Seth Godin for example). He’ll make it clear when he wants you to respond to specific prompts, and will provide a contact form. If we want to interact with Seth’s daily posts – and he makes sure we do – we need to share them on social media. I’m sure there are other principles at play here: he wants to control the debate and he knows how much creative energy it takes to reply to comments left on a popular blog.

Seth’s approach is extreme, but it’s an option.

At the other end of the scale, I love to watch Amanda of insidethelifeofmoi effortlessly patrolling her own comments and making numerous, thoughtful guest appearances in the comments sections of other people’s blogs. Check out any of her recent posts to see a commenting masterclass.

Being a better host is something we can all aim for, but be careful of what you want ‘cos you’ll surely get it. This is not a light undertaking. Look at the time stamps on the replies – masters like Amanda might be at this all night.

Popular people on all forms of social media have a get-out-of-jail-card-free – no reasonable person seriously expects them to watch their life slip away while they attempt to reply to everything, unless they like it. Bloggers like Amanda clearly do.

The middle way

When influencer Cheri Lucas Rowland laments her addiction to photographic enhancement in her post Instagram Has Ruined Me, the comments section is as meaty as the original post. Her entertaining take on a relevant topic has garnered eighty comments, many adding to the discussion.

Cheri resists the temptation to automatically press ‘like’ in reply. She moderates with a light hand, responding to perhaps 15% when she has something to say. Does it feel like enough?

Yes: especially as the post has shared in several prominent places, including The New York Times. Her light, editor’s touch shows confidence and helps give the comments section a life of its own.

I’m always surprised that people often read other comments, but rarely interact with anyone except their host. There must be some communal instincts at play. The dynamic would certainly change if interactions in comments sections were more like real world get-togethers.

I’d hazard a guess that most of us would be delighted if a blogger replied to the odd comment that particularly interested them on our blogs and a brief conversation ensued, but we would be far less impressed by someone who replied more widely to lots of people, seeming to usurp the role of host.

Moderating comments

Comments sections have been hitting the news: can it be true that they’re an endangered form of communication? Jessica Valenti recently argued in the Guardian that online comments should be ended, because of trolling. I get where she’s coming from, but agree with David Higgerson when he suggests that publications should actively manage their comments sections by investing in moderators.

WordPress bloggers are overwhelmingly kind and supportive. Perhaps that’s partly because we’re all moderators here: there’s no obligation to approve any comment we don’t want on our blogs. Our visitors have an incentive to be thoughtful about what comments they leave – it’s not possible to amend or delete comments left on another person’s blog.

10 snippets of commenting etiquette

Would you agree that most bloggers appear confident hosts in the haven of their own online homes, up for the challenge to moderate and interact? They may not get everything right, but they find a way that works for them. It’s when we venture out onto other people’s blogs that this natural facility to communicate somehow deserts us. These tips are designed to help:

  • Use offline, ‘real world’ etiquette online. 
    If someone sitting next to you plucked up the strength to share details of a tragedy they were living through, would you grin broadly and say ’have a happy day’? I wouldn’t. Commenting is essentially the same as ordinary conversation. If you wouldn’t say something face to face, don’t say it online.
  • Be prepared to give us something of yourself. Just don’t make it all about you.
  • Don’t change the subject.
  • It’s nice to be nice. 
    Make each comment a small act of kindness: a way to be warm, to encourage each other, to show you care.
  • Check out the blog of anyone who leaves you an interesting comment.
    You might meet a kindred spirit.
  • Please fill in your gravatar!
    I’m amazed that so many people who ‘like’ my blog haven’t added their sites to their gravatars. Your gravatar is a calling card you leave on every blog you visit and like or comment. Only leave a blank card if want to be anonymous.
  • It’s OK to respond thoughtfully to another person who has left a comment, even if it’s not your blog.
    But use discretion. It’s not OK to take over.
  • Don’t edit other people’s posts in a comment..
    There’s no reason to correct grammar or point out typos unless specifically encouraged to proof read a piece of writing.
  • Don’t leave a comment on someone else’s blog requesting feedback, follows or views or leave promotional links.
    It’s not just bad etiquette, it’s ineffective, counterproductive marketing.
  • Think carefully before leaving one of these on someone else’s blog:
    ‘Thanks for visiting / commenting / liking / following my blog’.
    I prefer this blogger’s version as it shifts the emphasis from ‘you like me’ to ‘I like you’:
    ‘I am glad you found your way to my blog so I could find my way to your blog. I look forward to reading more of your posts’.

30 ways to leave a meaningful comment

Knowing the etiquette is all very well, but it doesn’t offer much help with the basic issue of what to say. The best way is always to jump right in and practice, but if you’d like a commenting cheat sheet, here are some ideas:

Say what you liked
I prefer / this is my favourite
I enjoyed… (something specific)
This worked well
Pick out a quote from the piece (I liked it when you said…)
If the post has an interesting picture, respond to the technique or the subject choice or say how it makes you feel.

Be supportive
Encourage
Reassure
Give virtual hugs

Express a different viewpoint
Tread carefully – public critiquing is not always welcome. Be kind.
I’m not sure that will work
Have you considered this idea?
I disagree

Extend the debate
Broaden the idea, but don’t change the subject
Add extra research or a useful (non-promotional) link

Ask questions / request clarification
How did you do this?
What do you think about this?
Why did you choose this approach? Did you mean…?
I didn’t understand…

Give advice
Answer questions
My method is… / I use this
Offer practical help

Acknowledge resonance, endorse or validate
I feel the same / that works for me too / I understand
I’ve written about that (it may be appropriate to include a link to useful, related, supportive comment)
Share a related experience
That’s an interesting idea – it’s made me think…

Say thanks
Thanks for sharing / explaining
Thanks for drawing attention to this

Automatic notifications and links
Pingbacks
Reblogs
Keep your gravatar links up to date

Connecting with others

It’s possible for comments to trivialise or become a cacophony of white noise. Used thoughtfully they help us make connections, and give us a warm feeling. If I think of the bloggers I feel closest to since starting to blog, the ones whose posts I look forward to reading most, they’re the ones who talk to me in comments on my blog or their own: those who somehow (despite my inclination to keep silent) have encouraged me to come out of my shell. The kind ones.

It’s just a different level of understanding. I trust them; I know them; I like them.

They don’t just see blogging in terms of publishing a post, but go beyond that. They’re warm, natural and inviting; here to give as well as take. They truly have something to say, not only in published pieces, but in thoughtful, spontaneous ad-libs in comment sections too.

These people have given me more than they’ll ever know, just by being themselves and reaching out. They’ve made my blog richer – they’ve given it life.

I’m hoping to change

I’m not sure I’m cut out to be the perfect host. And I’m not planning to spread myself widely in other people’s comment sections, like the mysterious dust in Philip Pullman’s books, floating down over the blogosphere. World domination’s not for me!

But I will try to reach out that bit more. I’ll try not to accept the tempting excuse quite so often: ‘I don’t know what to say’. I’ll remind myself I am welcome – that every comments box is an invitation.

It does feel like I‘m still treading an overgrown path, so yes, I have to make the effort, but each conversation I have in the comments section clears one bramble away; opens up a new way to connect with people around the world. Perhaps it’s not friendship exactly, but it’s something real and strangely akin to it. So if you see me coming your way, hold back a bramble in welcome for me.

And if you find yourself feeling daunted in the face of an empty comments box, despite having something to say, just remind yourself that in this case at least:

“No one is going to be eaten / vapourised / exterminated / upgraded / possessed / mortally wounded / turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.”

Have you anything to add to this Commenting 101?

Do you ever catch yourself thinking ‘I want to comment but I don’t know what to say’ or feeling awkward replying to comments?
Are there any types of comments you do not like receiving?
Have you made any mistakes about commenting? I’ll confess mine if you confess yours!

94 Replies to “The Art of Commenting: what holds us back and how we can fix it”

  1. I’m naturally introverted and have trouble talking to people — even people I know — in person, so I always thought that was part of what kept me from posting as many comments as I might, but I guess it’s more common than I thought, and not just my personal problem. Where I especially have trouble is posting comments on blogs that *aren’t* on WordPress. Then there’s all sorts of other issues of how one identifies oneself and all that. (I actually wanted to leave a comment on a doll blog elsewhere just a couple of days ago, but ended up not doing so, because it just felt so awkward!)

    I know I’d like more people to comment on some of my posts — it seems like any time I end a post with “what do you think?” or otherwise asking for feedback, I never hear a peep out of anyone — but I never know how many people are actually reading my posts. The number of times that WordPress tells me a post has been viewed doesn’t seem to be accurate, since I’ll sometimes get a “like” on a post that WordPress says has never been viewed. (Maybe they liked it in the Reader without even clicking on it? Hardly makes sense, but…)

    BTW, I think my favorite bit with the Doctor’s prompt cards was when he read out the *whole* card, instead of just the appropriate option.

    1. I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to leave your thoughts here. It really helps to have a small community of people who feel at home and welcome on your blog, but we have to allow time to work its magic and have the confidence to keep sharing a good mix of content we’ve put our hearts into, even if the response isn’t exactly what we hoped for.

      The Daily Post writers have put together a free ebook on how to get more visitors that might be of interest and this category search brings up all Daily Post articles on traffic and growth. Needless to say, I haven’t read them all, but I always feel confident to recommend WordPress tips – they’re created with kindness and common sense.

      People can technically click on like without reading anything except the post’s summary – let’s assume good intent – they perhaps liked the picture or the first few lines.

  2. I enjoyed this post so very much. I look to leave a comment on any post I read. I know how much comments mean to me so I try to pay that forward when I can. I personally would prefer ten comments to a hundred views. And I always reply to any comments left. The comment interaction between writer and reader is what I enjoy about blogging more than anything outside of the actual writing itself. If I write what I think is a great post and I get a number of likes…it doesn’t mean nearly as much as those one or two comments that may spring forth. I relish feedback especially if my point or story is one someone disagrees with or has a negative view of. I learn from my readers…but only when they take the time to enlighten me. And of course…when someone new leaves a comment off I go to their site to return the favor. I will sample their site…comment on a post or perhaps two…and maybe even choose to follow them!

    1. I like your attitude that commenting is part of the fun of blogging and that you give feedback partly because you appreciate getting comments so much.

      There’s a culture that sports fans share their views openly and passionately and can (usually) agree to disagree with grace. Perhaps as a result I often think football journalists are some of the most talented and witty writers we read in UK newspapers – I found your blog very much in the same tradition.

      1. I enjoyed your visit and comment on my site but it was nothing compared to seeing your compliment above. I find the UK football journalists do some wonderful, witty work and if I can carry on that tradition on my little ol’ site here in the States that’s wonderful to aspire to.

  3. Most EXCELLENT post, S! You covered everything. I think Blogging 101 should add your post to their discussion on commenting etiquette. {{{S}}}

  4. Reblogged this on Impromptu Promptlings and commented:
    This post by Susan Rushton is a terrific primer for blogging/commenting etiquette. If you’re shy at all about commenting, please read Susan’s post. It’s packed full of good suggestions!

  5. Thank you for taking the time to list all of the things about communicating on blogs. I know I have had some of the hesitations you have listed here. One of my biggies is, I have a degree in Creative Writing and I am always tempted to give people advice on their written product but I never know if they really want an honest opinion. So I say nothing. Your insightful comments, and glorious examples will surely help me and I thank you for those. I thoroughly agree with your thought not to correct people’s typos, punctuation, etc. Those with nothing to say search out for typos to make themselves sound “smarter.” 🙂 I actually do look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    1. I always wish we could critique and proof read our own writing as quickly and easily as we can critique other people’s. I’m sure I find it easier to spot a typo if someone else has written it – the mere act of writing somehow creates a familiarity that feels akin to correctness, even when it isn’t!

      1. Amen. I can see all the grammatical/punctuation errors in my OLD posts, but seldom take the time to go back and fix them. Lately (thanks to Writing and Blogging 101), I find myself falling into other blogger’s words and am less the editor and more the happy reader.

        I think your treatise on commenting is fantastic! I was quite timid about commenting in the past, and even worse about replying to comments on my own blog but all the wonderful classmates have truly helped me in that regard. I JUST realized that you are part of the W101 “Team” (I felt as if I was on a bullet train and was missing half of the scenery whizzing by). You are clearly more knowledgeable about blogging and helped me in the Commons and left lovely thoughts. Your blog is gorgeous!

        1. It’s lovely to see you here and I’m glad you enjoyed it. When I first started blogging, I expected it to be all about writing, or sharing photos – a private world going on in public if you will – but Blogging U changed all that by showing me that reading, commenting and being part of a community is the other half of blogging.

      2. That’s why I try to drum into my students two things: Have someone you know read your work, and always read it out loud to make sure it rolls off the tongue. Reading aloud will tell you where you need punctuation. 🙂

  6. Thanks so much for this post Susan. You have deftly addressed all the things I’ve been thinking about (and am guilty of) in relation to “commenting.” I really appreciate your insights — and love the party metaphor. That really speaks to me! Cheers, Su.

    1. I’m glad you mentioned the party metaphor – I did wonder if I was going to lose my readers at that point! I wanted to make the point that it can be a little strange, so it’s not really surprising if commenting is something we have to feel our way into.

  7. This is such an excellent and thoughtful post. I wish more people would leave comments instead of or as well as clicking that oh-so-quick-and-convenient “like” button.

    1. It takes extra time and thought to write a comment, so I do find the like button handy and I’m very glad we have it. I decided not to use it in this post as an experiment and I find I’m having a really hard time not pressing it!

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful suggestions of how to respond to a post. I hope all your readers will follow your advice. I’m another one of those bloggers who crave interaction. It’s one of the reasons why I blog.

    1. Publishing a blog post can feel strangely anonymous. Even though we have people who subscribe to our posts, they may not feel inspired to read that particular one. So it’s only natural to hope for some kind of response, but it strikes me the only way we can be sure there will be more WordPress comments to go round is to write more of them ourselves! I’d be fascinated to see the overall community stats – how many comments get replies for example?

  9. Very comprehensive take on commenting. Amanda’s a great example and amazing at responding. I think sometimes the “like” is usually reciprocal and an acknowledgement of having read each other’s post while at the same time also literally liking their post. Time constraints precludes leaving comments on a lot of posts but people appreciate it when you leave compliments. I always thank those that leave comments but sometimes there’s not much more to add to that. I’ll have to come over here for tips and read your thoughtful advice. 🙂

    1. She’s brilliant, isn’t she? Your point about reciprocal liking makes me think how lucky we are that we’re not technically able to ‘like’ a ‘like’ – you liked my post and I liked the fact you liked it. Leading you, no doubt, to appreciate my gratitude… What’s the opposite of a vicious circle? An auspicious circle? That’s been a lucky escape!

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