Toxic Beta Readers: Avoid Them. Avoid Being One.

Every once in a while, on a blog or at a conference, a writer delivers the Get Tough Speech. It goes something like this:

“If you’re going to be a writer, you have to deal with criticism. You have to get used to people tearing your work apart and leaving it in bleeding, charred pieces. You also have to love literally being pelted with rocks and garbage. You have to be okay with someone actually shooting your dog dead in front of you. Otherwise, get your weak ass out of here.”

I embellished a little. Anyway, every time someone delivers The Speech, I’m like, well… yes and no.

Absolutely, writers need to seek out criticism and use it to make their work better. I don’t think anyone becomes a good writer without this. A detailed, line-by-line critique, from someone with good judgement, is a gift.

Terrific feedback may still sting — particularly for newer writers, and particularly on a bad day. That’s okay. We can handle a little pain. We all have to get good at embracing critiques from well-meaning people who know what they’re doing.

But not all beta readers are well-meaning.

If your critique partner isn’t invested in your success, but rather invested in tearing you down (whether she’s aware of this or not), she’s not going to be good for you. She may be someone who seems like your friend, but in this situation at least, she is not.

Here are a few signs of a toxic beta reader.

 

Find beta readers who will help you improve, not tear you down. #writing #editing

A toxic beta reader conveys scorn in her comments.

She doesn’t say, “This character needs to be more well-rounded.” She says, “This character is flatter than the piece of paper the story is printed on.” In a workshop or group critique, she may get lots of laughs.

(PS: If you teach workshops and this is going on, you need to take control and set a better tone. And if you’re the one doing it, change or stop teaching.)

A toxic beta reader yells at you.

Exclamation marks, one or more. All capital letters. If you’re sensible, you’ll think, Calm down. Nobody died from my awkward sentence.

A toxic beta reader never points out what you are doing right.

This is deadly, because chances are, you are more clueless about your particular talents than you are about your weaknesses. If your character made a hilarious joke, or you write an unforgettable metaphor, you might not even know how good it is, because it came easily to you.

Improving isn’t only about fixing our weaknesses. It’s also about learning to play to our strengths. 

We can’t do that if we don’t know, or forget, what our strengths are. If a beta reader brags, “I only make notes when things are wrong,” make a note to yourself to never work with that person. That is half-assed critiquing, and you want people who use their entire ass.

A toxic beta reader suggests maybe you shouldn’t write at all.

This person just disqualified herself from being someone you need to listen to about anything, ever.

Why are some beta readers toxic?

There are probably a lot of reasons.

Some of the harshest people, and the loudest negative voices in workshops and writing groups, are some of the least productive and accomplished. Sometimes instead of trying to raise themselves up, people try to tear others down. Toxic beta readers may use criticism as a substitution for creative work, and bring the drama and the jokes that should go into their own stories into the feedback they give.

Successful writers can be toxic beta readers and community members too, though. Honestly, I have no idea what their problem is.

Sometimes, it’s personal.

The friend you asked for feedback may be jealous of you. He may resent the fact that you are writing at all, because he’s not doing anything creative himself.

Your beta reader may have a grudge against your story or genre. You write romance? Screw you — her last date was a disaster. You are writing lies. You’re writing about a heroic soldier? He’s a pacifist who hates the military.

As beta readers, we should try to be aware of emotional reactions that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. I believe in honoring a commitment to give feedback. However, there are a few types of stories that would make me say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not a good audience for this.”

Of course, some beta readers may not be toxic, but inept. They tell you they loved everything, or they have suggestions that make no sense. Eh, well. Still thank them profusely, because they gave you their time and they tried.

(Okay, granted, a beta reader who says he loved everything may not have actually read your story at all. Thank him anyway. At least he’s sent some good will your way.)

I hope this encourages some people to exercise a little discernment in who they get feedback from, and in how they give feedback themselves. And if you’re still new to getting critiques, give yourself a little reward for having the courage to show it to someone. Give yourself another one for being brave enough to hear or read through their comments. You’re doing what you need to do for your craft. Happy writing!

32 thoughts on “Toxic Beta Readers: Avoid Them. Avoid Being One.”

  1. Yassssssss. I have my First Official Critique Partner, and she’s awesome. I don’t think I’m as good as it as she is, but I try. lol.

  2. All very good points, some people are just not good at critiquing and some people are just plain rude or jealous as you say. The unfortunate part is when writing and getting critiques you’re bound to run into toxic beta readers. I’ve had teachers in high school who hated my stuff, and we very cruel about it. They would tell me it wasn’t very creative or that it was bland or that I should only write what I know, but yet I have continued writing regardless of their opinions and have met many people who truly enjoy what I write. I think it’s almost a process to find a handful of good critique partners.

    1. It’s the worst when it’s teachers! They are in a position to do so much damage. I’ve had lots of talented people in workshops over the years who were scared to ever write again after a bad teacher. Good for you for ignoring them… that takes both wisdom and strength.

      1. It is awful when it comes from teachers, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt my feelings and make me doubt myself. But then I thought, I want the satisfaction of proving them wrong, that I could, in fact, write something that people would enjoy.

      2. I used to teach, and my one unbreakable rule was never to let a paper leave my hands without saying something nice. No matter what is wrong, the encouragement of positive comment keeps the student or writer engaged and trying to do better. I’ve argued with teachers my daughter had years ago about how they subtracted points. Some teachers and some readers will look for and hone in on minor errors (which can be their own misjudgment or personal preference only) looking for ways to downgrade someone’s writing. Sometimes I think there is a jealousy factor involved “She thinks she’s so smart.” TOXIC is exactly the right term for these people.

        A ruling of A+ or “GREAT” with no other comment about how or why the reviewer reached that conclusion is a waste, really, thin soup. Tell me what was great, what was crap, and what was good but could be improved.

        I’ve done a lot of editing, but it takes me forever! I’m suppose I’m still too much in teaching mode.

        1. Former teacher here, and I as well had that rule. I also did what I have heard described as the “praise sandwich. ” I would open and close with something positive. No one wants to get something back, and the first thing they see at the very top is a critique. I also used purple instead of scary red, but then my students joked that now they were afraid of purple!

  3. Great post, as usual!
    And, in my opinion, toxic beta readers are as bad as some toxic reviewers on Goodreads who find satisfaction in shredding other people’s works!

  4. Pingback: Toxic Beta Readers: Avoid Them. Avoid Being One. | Bryn Donovan | Author Selfie

  5. This is so timely because I am getting ready to send my first three chapters to a Beta reader and I’ve never worked with this person before. The first time I let my work be critiqued it was pretty painful, but I looked at the suggestions, read the recommended book and got better. Six months later the same group had a lot of praise for my work. There was a newbie there that day and even though no one was mean, I still wanted to buy her a drink.

    1. Yeah, you never know how it’s going to go with a new beta reader! I think first critiques are almost always painful. Now I love it if someone finds a bunch of ways to make my story better… but I sure didn’t always. 🙂

  6. Wonderful post. I think having a good balance is what makes a beta reader valuable. I have some betas who highlight both my strengths and my weaknesses in an attempt to prompt me to make my work better. I find that I look forward to those notes of positive reinforcement…that they liked my joke or a bit of imagery stood out to them. It balances the stuff where they politely point out I need some polish.

    Negativity gets us no where. I know I falter at criticism when it’s not constructive or balanced. As a reader, I like to point out one for one…a praise for every critique. Sometimes both on the same line. 🙂 It serves no purpose to be rude and negative just because you have the ability to do so.

    Again. Great article and bravo! <3

    1. Hey, thanks for reading, and thank you so much for the nice words! You are so right about balance being key in a beta reader. I try to do that, just like you do, when I’m reading other people’s stuff 🙂 Hope you’re enjoying the Labor Day weekend!

  7. Great post! I have the bad habit of paying attention to every comment and critique that I receive. Pulled publication of a memoir after a beta reader had a negative response to it. Have since realized that at least one out of three readers is not going to love my work, but if two out of three do, then it’s fine. Have found out the worst thing that can happen to a budding writer is for everyone in her/his critique group to love what she/he writes because then she/he will have a nasty surprise ahead.

    1. Oh no! That’s an awful story about your memoir!

      I really do love thorough critiques, as long as I feel like the beta reader is in my corner. (In fact, I have a terrible time getting people to beta read for me, so I’m always grateful when someone does!)

      But you’re absolutely right: some people just won’t like your stuff, period. And that’s fair. I don’t like the work of a few very popular writers, truth be told. Everyone is different!

  8. Great post, and I agree 100%! I’ve had to give criticism to critique partners before–some of it pretty harsh–but I’ve never been snarky or hurt their feelings, and they’ve all thanked me for being honest with them.

  9. One of the most toxic beta readers I’ve ever met was an English Lit teacher. She claimed she knew what good writing was, yet she tore down her students and everyone else gleefully. She even trolled fanfiction websites leaving snarky reviews in her wake. According to her no one ever did anything right. Had she ever written anything? No. It was pretty obvious what she was doing: she felt she couldn’t write, so her mission in life was to destroy everyone who did.

    Thanks for the article. Like you said, anyone who doesn’t mention the good things a writer does has an agenda.

  10. I beta read…kindly. I am quick, yet thorough. I find grammar, spelling and punctuation errors and will share truthful, constructive criticism.

  11. Thanks for this post. I know it is a few months old but I wanted to comment that there are, indeed, toxic beta readers out there…

    I sent my MS to one unbiased (that is, had never met her) beta reader who was just the right amount of critical and kind. I took many of her comments to heart and considered each suggestion and edited most of them.

    I then sent my (edited) MS to another unbiased beta reader, and her opening comment on my first paragraph was: “I have no idea who is talking, what she is talking about, and why I should care.” Ouch, okay…

    About a paragraph later (so, second paragraph in my MS) I write ‘Susie set the book aside.’ She blasts the sentence with “Where did she set it aside? What is going on? Why is this person here? This is very convoluted and confusing”. Yes, she wrote all of that in regards to a five word sentence in the second paragraph of my MS.

    A page later she tags another sentence with one word. “Seriously”. Yeah. Her comment on a sentence was literally one word.

    Overall this person read about 1000 words (less than 2%) of my manuscript, filled it with about 20 comments of the above nature, and then returned it to me declaring my writing was ‘impossible to read’, ‘beyond help’ and that I ‘need to read more’. She did not even attempt to make a positive comment at all.

    I’m not looking for an ego stroke and I know better than to take things personally, but there are much more tactful ways for a beta reader to reject a MS, as you stated in the article. Sad thing is she is still peddling her services and claims to have two decades of ‘publishing experience’. As much as I want to warn unsuspecting novice writers about her toxic feedback, I don’t want to be ‘that person’.

    Okay, sorry I ranted – done now, and thanks again for this article Bryn.

    1. Corylyn, that is awful. Until your last paragraph, I was assuming it was someone with little beta reading experience. If she’s in business doing this, that is just terrible. But as I’m sure you know, it says a lot more about who she is as a person than it does about your writing!

      Thanks for commenting! Hope your writing is going great!

  12. I posted my query for critique once on an online site, and the people said I need to work on my grammar. I came to terms what they said was true, but I was disgusted with one comment. The person said something along the lines of, “Well, these people on this site who live in foreign countries where English isn’t the official language still remember grammar incredibly well. They’ve been away from high school for a long time. Frankly, you either have it or you don’t when it comes to grammar.” I was appalled when I read that. Excuse me? Everyone else understood my dilemma (I’ve been away from high school for four years and lost my grammar touch since I’m not going for an English degree) and told me to study up on it (which I’m taking at least 30 minutes-1 hour studying grammar every single day).
    I didn’t reply to this person, and I refuse to stoop to their level and say anything. Instead, I shrugged it off and said, “I’ll show you.”

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