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.
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!