Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beta Reading Etiquette: How to Give Critique

If you've ever tried to give a writer feedback on their story, you've probably experienced the backlash of someone getting mad at you because you told them what they didn't want to hear.

And you, the poor person who was often even asked to give that feedback, were left wondering what on earth you did wrong. All you did was answer the writer's question, right? So why, if the writer asked you for feedback, did she snarl at you and yell and start crying when you pointed out that, er, 50-year-old men don't usually go around treating the cheerleading team to ice cream for no apparent reason, so it makes that major character seem more creepy rather than nice?

Been there. Done that. Had my head ripped off and left dangling by a vertebrae.

*pauses and eyes above line, wondering if it's too gruesome*

*considers the content in her published stories, shrugs, and leaves it*

Yes, I have had folks call me morbid. How'd you guess?

Now, how many of you were wondering when I'd get off that tangent about my sense of humor and back on-topic about how to give critique? How would you have phrased your critique?

  1. Rabbit trail.
  2. That part's a bit off-topic.
  3. Get to the point.
  4. I'd like to learn about the beta reading techniques sometime today, please.

Each of those options have situations where they could be used, but they have their pitfalls, as well. #1 could be interpreted as a direct, concise alert—or it could be read as a snide comment. #2 conveys the problem, but in a mild enough way that the author might not realize there is a problem. #3 would probably be thought rude, the phrasing suggesting that you're bored, though it might be intended as a concise request. #4 might be interpreted as intended humor, but the recipient would likely believe it to be mean-spirited snark.

Notice that each phrasing will probably be interpreted in the worst possible way.

Many writers take critique personally. Many say "It never stops hurting." (Which makes me scratch my head, honestly. Critique isn't an ad hominem, a personal attack. At least, it shouldn't be.)


How do you as a beta reader actually give critique without ticking off the writer? Use some basic psychology. Humans remember negatives better than positives, and we remember the beginning and end of something better than we do the middle.

Beta Reading Etiquette:

  • Always assume a writer will interpret your critique in the worst possible light.
  • Always sandwich critique in-between positives. Always.
  • If you're giving a lot of notes, also intersperse positive comments throughout.
  • If you're critiquing throughout the manuscript (such as with Track Changes), also comment on positive things and your emotional reactions to scenes.
  • Always include positives, even if the writer says you needn't bother.
  • The first time you beta read for someone, test the waters. Start out with a tactful overarching comment (see the previous list's #2); burrow deeper after you see that the writer's fine with what you're saying.
  • When the writer has solicited the critique: Always ask what kind of feedback the author is looking for before you start.
  • When the writer has not solicited the critique: Always take tactic #2 and say more positive things than negative.


You can ignore all of the above rules if…

  • you have a well-established critique relationship with the writer. The relationship must be secure enough that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can ignore those rules—OR
  • you're being paid. If you're being paid, it's a good idea to still point out some positives, but you needn't be quite so careful. The author is then paying you to be negative—tactfully negative, granted, but negative.

Granted, even if you're offered money for content editing or line editing or copyediting, some authors will still expect you to treat them with kid gloves. If that's the impression an author gives you—Are they pitching a fit over their "So mean" reviewers?—be wary.

Anyone who's offended by critique or negative input isn't someone you want to work with.

Yes, that's my opinion. But I've developed it in my time as a beta reader and as a recipient of beta reading. Perhaps your mileage has varied.

Do you have any beta reading tips you'd like to add, either as a writer or as a beta reader?


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