I feel it worth saying that this article is aimed towards one-to-one and small group beta/critique partners. I can’t comment on larger, less personal environments like online critiquing communities simply because I’ve never been a long-term member of one.
Sarah Callender wrote an excellent blog on Writer Unboxed today. She wrote about the relationship she has with her long-standing beta reader, and the beta process. Like any good social media presence, WU packaged both the article and Tweet promoting it with a call to action: “What positive experiences have you had with a beta reader… and why was it so positive? Or, why did a beta reader… relationship not work out so well?”
What started as a blog reply ended up making me think. Obviously, this meant I needed a lie down. Unfamiliar activity does tire one out. While there is a lot of emotional responsibility on the part of the writer not to be unreasonable or explosive, a lot of beta issues I’ve had come from a couple of specific places. With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to write about my experience of receiving excellent critiques/beta feedback, and what I’ve learned in two years of giving people feedback as a part of my day job.
Last night (year) a Beta saved my (writing) life
To start I’d just like to say very, very clearly that betas are awesome. I love them with all my heart, and until a particularly amazing colleague gave me beta feedback a year ago, I’d more or less decided never to write fiction again.
The simple fact of someone giving me fair, insightful, encouraging feedback, along with just taking the time to say she’d enjoyed reading the work, took me from believing that I wasn’t good enough to fulfil my fiction writing dreams to being poised to release my own six-part series.
However, that experience – someone giving feedback that wasn’t painful or emotionally bruising, telling me they’d enjoyed my work, feeling I knew how to fix the things that were wrong with my story – was almost a first when it came to writing.
There really is some onus on the writer
In my 20s, my progress had stalled because I was so fragile. The slightest critique would cause me to flip, and I think most people knew it. There’s also the fact that I was naïve, sheltered and had untreated clinical depression, but I definitely had some personal faults holding me back just as much. I barely showed my work to anyone. I had a novel that I’d written in a week, but I didn’t have anything to do with it after my agent didn’t work out.
I tried to solve this by growing the thickest skin around. I prided myself on the fact that anyone could say anything about my work and I’d take it on the chin. I spoke proudly about the fact that I’d once continued working with an editor who sent a one-line response to a submission: “What is this piece of [redacted] you have sent me?”
I cannot express how exhausting this was – standing in front of the world, legs apart, testicles exposed, saying, “come on lads, have a kick”.
I’d more or less resigned myself to this (deciding that my awesome beta reading colleague was a unique phenomenon) when something else happened: I took on a post as a trainer at my day job. I was trained in how to train. I trained people. I watched other trainers. I spoke to friends and colleagues about how they felt about my practises.
Over a few months, I realised something very important: in a results-based, financially targeted business environment, all this Ramsey’s-Kitchen-Nightmares, House-Season-Four, Kingsman-the-Secret-Service bullshit is very old hat, and certainly not best practise.
Why should you care?
The simplest answer to that is the same as for a big company: it’s easier for you, and much more effective.
This post is in no way about telling you not to give the critique someone needs in order to improve their work.
This is about how to do it so that they listen to what you’re saying instead of getting upset at the tone.
Yes, there is absolutely a responsibility for the writer not to be an eggshell-fragile rage monster (i.e. me in about 2007) but there are ways to give feedback that will ensure people don’t need a stiff whiskey afterwards, and that they don’t need a skin of adamantium to survive your critiques.
Another reason to use these techniques is because, sadly, we don’t get to choose how people take our feedback.
Particularly since a lot of feedback will be given in writing, where so much can be misconstrued, there’s a huge utility in learning to communicate in a way that smooths things over.
People may still overreact and generally be ungrateful, but at least you won’t have upset an otherwise reasonable person by touching a nerve you didn’t know they had.
It’s not about being Oscar Wilde
This one weeds out fully a third of the people who I’ve ever asked to give me feedback.
It’s also slightly symptomatic of some changes in my personality: there was a time when I thought it was clever to have dysfunctional friendships based exclusively on sarcasm, nihilism and the worst traits of my personality. I thought that made me both clever and strong.
I loved reviewers like The Angry Video Game Nerd, Zero Punctuation and Nostalgia Critic. I’ve even written a fair few shitty reviews because I thought just saying horrible things was the height of comedy (no ill will to the artists mentioned above, btw, they are very funny – the fault was entirely with myself, as I’ll explain below).
I’ve seen it in beta readers too often, and it isn’t just a problem because it hurts people’s feelings.
It’s a problem because if you’re giving it your full Dr. House/Chef Ramsey/Gunny from Full Metal Jacket, you’re making the crit/beta about yourself, not the work. Those people are not real trainers (except the Gunny, and military training is a whole different kettle of fish).
Those people are characters whose aim is to entertain the viewer. If you think otherwise, watch the difference between Gordon Ramsey in Kitchen Nightmares and the way he behaves in MasterChef Junior.
There are real teachers like these characters, but they are bad teachers, and for every student who comes away loving them, there are likely whole classes full who think they’re a bellend. Not to mention the dropout rate.
Honestly, critique the work not the person. Resist the urge to use wit at someone else’s expense. Look to the best teachers in the real world, not fiction.
It’ll use less energy, and I’m prepared to bet money that you’ll have a greater effect on the people around you.
Always tell people something you liked straight off the bat
This one isn’t necessarily natural, and a lot of comedy has been made of the ‘feedback sandwich’.
It may feel dishonest. It may feel pointless: after all, someone has asked you the things that are wrong with their story.
Still, even if you have to fall back on the ubiquitous, “You have some wonderful ideas…”, say something good – preferably three things – because it acknowledges two things:
Firstly, in order for someone to improve their work, they need a degree of confidence that they’re capable of doing so. If you don’t leave someone that, there will be a period of shock where they don’t know what to do at all. Some people will never get beyond it. Some will take an emotional response and reject the feedback. Some will eventually get on with rebuilding the work. This wastes valuable time and creates a wound that can fester.
Secondly, the things you tell people you like are the tools they’re going to use to fix the broken parts of their story. It’s not just about emotional succour: telling someone what’s good gives them something to navigate towards when they’re repairing the bad.
Listen and engage
One of the biggest things I’ve learned (and its held true after training in the region of twenty highly skilled professionals over a two year period) is that if you just ask people what they thought of their work, about seventy percent of the time they know what’s wrong, and they’ll mention half the points you were going to bring up while critiquing them.
This means that if you open a beta reading conversation (when it’s practical) by saying, “I quite liked that, how did you feel about it?” you may get to check half of your beta list off without doing a thing. The best bit being that this works like tearing a plaster off – it hurts less when you do it yourself.
Another bonus is that writers will have concerns you don’t share. This is also a win – you can tell them it isn’t a problem for you, give your beta feedback, and you’ve made them feel better without any mental or emotional labour.
Also, don’t take explanations as excuses. If a writer says they were aiming for something they didn’t reach, it’s completely fine to say it didn’t work for you. They may abandon that angle. They may tune it and get there. Even if all you can never agree, feeling listened to will help them accept what you’ve said.
Try to avoid fighting words
By this I mean steer away from words that put you in opposition to the other person. Things like ‘this is bad’, ‘that information is wrong’ and the like. If nothing else, it creates an adversarial mindset that stops people listening to what you’re saying, which wastes everyone’s time and energy.
Expressing those things is absolutely the whole point of critiquing, but the devil is in how you do it.
As I’ve mentioned in the previous section, one of my fallbacks is “I’m afraid that didn’t work for me.” It doesn’t explicitly say a thing is bad. It doesn’t even say that it wouldn’t work for anyone, it just says that it didn’t work for me. Since you’re the person being asked to give feedback, that automatically counts for something, but it stands a far lower chance of making the writer feel attacked.
This is, however, where I have to qualify something said by Neil Gaiman: in his excellent eight rules of writing he did state, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
I would like to respectfully submit that he probably didn’t mean that if there is something wrong, don’t explain why. Dictating an alternate plot about how “X needs to do X and then go to California with Y” probably won’t help. Saying something didn’t work for you and then explaining why it didn’t work gives the writer a far better chance of knowing how to fix it.
Give a summary
This is especially important for long critiques. It allows you to restate the things you liked (possibly a much-needed boost after a long list of things that didn’t work), but also allows you to briefly cement in the writer’s mind what they need to do.
You can use bullet points. You can give an overview of things (my most recent beta didn’t restate the individual points she’d raised, but summarised that the protagonist’s self-destructive behaviour arc needed to see some resolution during the finale if I was going to hit the tone I’d set for the series).
You can even suggest particular pointers, keeping in mind to state subjectivity.
The reason to do so isn’t because writers’ feelings are precious, or because people shouldn’t be honest. It’s for the simplest reasons in the world: you’ll use a lot less energy in giving the feedback, you’ll be listened to much more, and you’ll become a creative partner not an adversary.
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