Thursday, February 14, 2013

Beta Reading Etiquette: How to Take Critique

In looking over my previous posts On Beta Readers, I realized I'd forgotten an important aspect: how to take critique.

In a word? Graciously.

However, this is one point wherein the relativity of rudeness and politeness comes into play.

See, some authors find it polite to answer all reviews, thanking the reviewer for their time. (Frankly, I'm inclined that way, when I know about a review.) But from what I've read, a fair number of readers find that creepy or snarky of the author.

And most people get too emotional, either in the reviewing or in the reading of the reviews (or both, which tends to get very messy).

Apply that "Taking things personally" to critique received by betas, and that's another potential land mine.

Etiquette isn't exactly clear-cut for this—but then, it isn't really clear-cut for anything—so here are some guidelines to help you handle critique graciously.

  • Wait before responding.
  • That's right. Don't respond right away. Particularly if your first response is along the lines of "How dare they?!" or "What an idiot!" Take a deep breath.

    And if, once you're calmer, you still find yourself getting hot under the collar? Wait some more. And see the next point.

  • Assume the best.
  • Even if you know the critic and you know, beyond a shadow of the doubt, that the person's being a troll, willfully misread it. Because frankly, you might be misreading it—and even if you aren't, the person might have some legitimate points, and you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Besides, when you keep your calm and don't respond in the expected manner—which would be ignoring them or losing your temper—people tend to notice. And if you're smart about it, you can even leverage it to, ah… Well. Not sure if I should admit this, but it's possible to make use of the adage "There's no such thing as bad publicity" in this situation.

  • Let yourself look na├»ve.
  • This goes along with the "Assume the best" thing. If you've followed my blog a while or if you've seen me around online, you might've noticed me letting spam comments through or engaging trolls. I do that intentionally, because I know some folks come across that way on accident.

    I'm not saying you need to do the same thing I do, but it's okay for someone to post a convincing but wrong review, like one that leaves a one-star review because their e-book file didn't load, when it's not your fault. Some folks will think it's you. (Great! They'll see that review and go harass someone else!) Others will see that review, think "What is that person's problem?" and ignore it.

  • Consider where the beta reader is coming from.
  • I admit, I've used a content editor over on Fiverr for a short story. I'd hire her again, too. But I hired her because I could tell my story wasn't quite right, and some sections were in the wrong spots, but I couldn't figure out the pieces. Her feedback let me see the pieces—but her advice was all wrong. For instance, she adhered to the belief that story-dating culture references are bad—a common belief—but a lot of classics have such pop culture references. Northanger Abbey comes to mind.

    Even when a person's advice is all wrong, you have to consider where they're coming from. People always make sense to themselves. For instance, the critic who says you need to define "revenant" in chapter one might not be all that familiar with urban fantasy. So that advice can tell you that you might want to define "revenant" in chapter one. So your critic has a reason for what they say—but in cases like calling "faerie" a misspelling, the reason could easily be that they aren't familiar with classic literature or archaic spellings, rather than any problem with your story itself. Which means your critic wasn't in your intended audience for the story—which in itself is useful to know.

  • Be polite.
  • Remember: Critics have taken time out of their days to write that critique. Whether they're wrong or right, they've spent their time producing that critique. Which is a compliment, if you look at it right.

    And if someone's completely off-course—or if they're harsh but right—then you know they weren't in your target audience. Maybe that means you need to reconsider your branding, maybe not. But at worst, you have character fodder.

  • Don't take it personally.
  • By and large, critique is not a personal attack (which are the ad hominem logical fallacy). It can be, in the case of comments like "You need to go back to grammar school." That comment can sting if you have grammar issues; it can be annoying if the person's being hypersensitive to a few typos; and it can be frustrating when the "problems" are just an issue of abiding by a different grammar handbook or dictionary than the critic believes to be the One.

    But don't take it personally. Such personal attacks are revelations of the reviewer's personality; and it could be something as simple as the critic himself is frustrated, because he's encountered several books with problems lately, and he's taking that frustration out on you. Rather than taking it personally, see if you can puzzle out what made the critic say that, and then you have character fodder for a later story. (As long as you sufficiently change the details, of course.)

  • If you can't handle it, avoid it.
  • Don't have readers, editors, proofreaders, betas, critics, reviewers, etc. But notice that avoiding critique entirely will mean you don't publish. So either you learn how to handle critique from others—because you need a first reader and a copyeditor, in the very least—or you don't publish.

    Oh, you can try to publish this way, doing all the editing and everything yourself—not reading any reviews or critique, that sort of thing. But you're unlikely to last long. (And to be frank, you'll likely end up among those giving authors a bad name, with others pointing to you as an example of what not to do. Just a warning.)

And yanno? I've gotten snide PMs on a forum or two, complaining about my typos on this blog, claiming those errors make me unprofessional or that they demonstrate that I don't know what I'm talking about, when it comes to grammar.

Um, this is personal, informal blog. There aren't that many errors—which in itself makes a point, but if you don't get it, the message isn't for you—and while I do endeavor to avoid typos, nobody's perfect.

And that's the key that so many people lose sight of: Nobody* is perfect.

*Except God/Christ/Holy Spirit, but that's a rabbit trail I don't need to travel down, here.

We can only do as good a job as we are able. That includes with writing, editing, proofreading, giving critique, and receiving critique.

And if we accept that we're fallible—while bearing in mind that the other people are fallible, too—things tend to go a whole lot better.

What do you think about my pointers on receiving critique? Do you have any further pointers to add?

—Misti

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