Friday, June 18, 2010

Respect and betas

Because I'm apparently feeling inflammatory today. This has been sort of festering. It's not because of anything that happened to me personally, either, so don't take this post as some kind of...rant at someone who I feel has 'wronged' me or something. Being a beta reader has been good to me. And I think I've blogged something in this vein before, but I don't think it can be said enough.

But I have a fear that sometimes as writers, we can be a little egotistical. We have to be, to an extent. If we don't feel that what we've written is good, it may as well go in the drawer because no one else will like it, either. But the problem arises when our ego gets in the way of being able to take criticism. Every beta you have has something valuable to say. Every. Single. One. It doesn't matter who they are. Were they more critical than all your others? That doesn't mean they're wrong. Maybe it means they're just an intense beta. Some people are more intense at critiquing than others. Even if you feel like they didn't enjoy your ms, or didn't get your characters, that doesn't mean their feedback isn't valuable.

Obviously you can't take every piece of advice. Some of it's conflicting, some of it just isn't going to work. But discounting an entire critique? The idea of it makes my stomach hurt. Beta reading takes time. A lot of time. This person (or these people) invested themselves in trying to help you. Whether their criticism is hard to swallow or not, everyone deserves the respect of their opinions being considered fairly.

I don't know how that will come off being read by others. And probably the majority of people who read this blog do love and respect their betas. But like I said, this issue has been festering in my mind, and I couldn't not blog about it.


Lee Bross said...

As someone who values your beta skills, I can't imagine not taking what someone has suggested at least into consideration.

Betas are what help us see whats missing. what might need work, or even what makes someone go WTF was that about?

All valuable comments! If you have the right betas, they want your book to be the best it can be as much as you do!!

Holly Dodson said...

Great post. I heart my beta. Being a beta IS a lot of work, and you're right -- every critique is helpful.

The Blue Lipstick Samurai said...

You seem a bit wary posting about the idea of all feedback being helpful... Hm?

But this is interesting; usually blogs focus on finding a beta, why you need a beta, how to give a critique as a beta, but never respecting a beta. A very valuable post, with a great deal of very valuable points.

Rant on, Kaitlin.

Phoebe said...

I have a feeling that what you're saying is likely addressed at writers who don't have a lot of experience taking feedback, but as a writer who has gone through an MFA rigmarole of painful workshops (seriously, I was describing one former workshop professor as "The Simon Cowell of poets" to someone last night), I think I respectfully disagree with you.

I've been in enough critiquing situations to know that people give feedback for different reasons. Some--many!--give it for munificent reasons, out of a desire to help either the writer or the work fulfill its potential. Others give feedback because they feel that viewing others' writing with a close lens helps them improve their own writing.

But there are some people who critique almost purely to tear other people down, because they get a thrill out of denigrating the work of others. In in-person workshop settings, I've watched poets and fiction writers alike try to lord over other writers, using their feedback as a weapon. They might not even be aware that they're doing this. This is thankfully rare. But it does happen.

Finally, and probably more commonly, there are some people whose approach to writing and reading is just so different from yours that their advice might as well be coming from an extraterrestrial. A formal poet, for example, who wants every prose poem broken down into verse, and you're a prose poet, and they can't get past your block of text to comment on anything else about it. This advice isn't really bad. But it can be irrelevant. And sometimes it's okay for the writer to disregard this--after all, following this advice can take a writer far, far away from his or her intentions with a piece.

(For all I love "kill your darlings" aphorisms, and for all that I've murdered my own through editing--with helpful feedback from betas, to boot!--I do think artistic ownership of a piece is important. Editing something away from an author's core intention can kill the life that it contains, to get a bit overwrought about it.)

That's not to discount the work that betas or workshop participants have done. They've still done a good, generous thing for critiquing a piece. But I think the author always, always has the option--maybe even the responsibility--to disregard everything a critique partner has said. Of course, you have to do this carefully. If you're always throwing away everyone's feedback, you have a problem. But you need to be able to filter advice--which is why, if someone tells me that my feedback isn't useful for them, all I can do is shrug and say "sorry." My tastes and opinions aren't everyone's tastes and opinions, and I do my best to understand that when I'm going in to a beta/critiquing situation.

Kaitlin Ward said...

Phoebe, you are definitely right. I guess my post is specific to the smaller YA writing community--people writing the same genre, often talking to each other via email, twitter, and AW. Because of course we are not all qualified to critique every type of writing (I wouldn't even try to critique a poem.)

But my basic idea is, it makes my blood boil for critiques to be thrown away for petty reasons like egos. And they always ALWAYS deserve thanks for their effort.

Phoebe said...

Oh, I definitely agree. But I have to say that on some public AW boards, I've seen some posters who obviously pride themselves on snark who fall back into those patterns I've seen in workshops, too. Not everyone (and not all snarky posters are doing this out of ill-intent!), but it happens, you know? Mostly, I guess, I think it's okay to roll your eyes and disregard advice if someone is clearly being an asshat for asshat's sake. And if a beta's critique confounds you even after you've sat on it awhile to get some emotional distance, it's probably okay to disregard that, too.

But a writer definitely shouldn't be an asshat, either. I have strict no-asshat rules.

(And have drunk too much coffee. Apologies for babbling!)

Erinn said...

Beta readers are very helpful but it's good to choose your beta readers carefully.

Choose people a few who write the same genre, or are knowledge about your topic. Then choose someone who isn't. Sometimes those who don't read or write in your genre are even more helpfully about the things that do not make sense.

Kristin Miller said...

Yay betas!

I think this post definitely comes from a place that assumes one has found good quality beta or critique group. There are dud betas out there, sure, though I think the number is quite low. It's a balancing game between whether the beta is doing a poor job, or whether the writer is too defensive to accept/see what the beta is trying to say.

Blatant meanness is, of course, awful. But not common. Far more common is the precious writer.

Tere Kirkland said...

I would not be able to make it past a first draft without beta readers. Even the experiences where I've gotten critiques of just the first five pages on Query Tracker, or Miss Snark or Absolute Write have been invaluable, despite whatever motivated my critiquers to reply.

Sometimes it's hard to read between the lines and figure out exactly why a specific comment was made, but if it's something that bothers you after you've ruminated on the crit for a few days, then they must be onto something.

I love my betas and I especially appreciate those who undertake a full manuscript. It's a lot of work. Great post!

Kelley Vitollo said...

Wonderful post! I completely agree.

Michelle Schusterman said...

It's the appreciation that's key. In most cases, like you (Kaitlin) said, at least some of the feedback will be something to consider. Every beta is a reader. Whether or not you use their suggestions, you should always ALWAYS be thankful they took the time to read and critique an entire book just for the sake of helping you out!

Emilia Plater said...

So, so, so completely true. I can understand flinching at one line of critique. Maybe you've gotten crits that conflict directly with it, or maybe it's like a sword thrusted into some long-held writing tradition you've held your whole life, or whatever. But a whole crit? Come on, dude. As writers, we gotta be better than that. :D

J.S. Wood said...

I think this is very well said, Kaitlin. I've had beta feedback that floored me and took me a few days to let it sink in, but I would never think that the feedback wasn't valuable, even if I didn't agree with it. Betas do put a lot of time in a mss, at minimum four hours to simply read, that time is worth a million thank-yous.

Kathy Bradey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathy Bradey said...

The fact that someone has taken the time to read my manuscript and offer to help (unpaid) is just phenomenal IMO.
And a simple thank you always goes a long way.

Psssst... Kaitlin you are a top-notch beta ;)

Stephanie Jenkins said...

"Every beta you have has something valuable to say. Every. Single. One. It doesn't matter who they are. Were they more critical than all your others? That doesn't mean they're wrong." <--- This. It's so true. My betas had different styles of reading--I had one who read the book and offered overall feedback and another who made line edits. I appreciated them all so, so, so much. Like Kathy pointed out, betas read our books for free, and it's unfair to brush off a critique because it pretty much means that person's time was wasted. Wonderful post!

Mohamed Mughal said...

Negative feedback is far more instructive than no feedback.

Medeia Sharif said...

I understand that some opinions can't be followed, especially if the writer can't fit them into his/her work, but most times the feedback is valuable and it should be used.

I can't believe someone donates his/her time freely to beta read and the person at the other end does nothing with the critique. I would assume that the writer was fishing for praise, rather than wanting to change his/her work.

Sarah Enni said...

You just inspired me to write a thank-you email :)

Thanks for the reminder - appreciation and respect can get thrown to the wayside sometimes. It's sad when that happens, and totally unnecessary.

Remilda Graystone said...

I think you and Phoebe both have great points. It does take a lot of work to beta someone's work, especially a full manuscript, and for someone to disregard the advice completely because of their ego is unfair, I'd say. At the very least, you can take into consideration what they're saying.

One thing I do is I always tell the person whose work I've beta-ed that if they have any questions or comments about what I've said, then email me. Don't be afraid to ask. Give me the opportunity to explain myself as best as I can if you are concerned with something I said. That's what I'm here for. It won't do you any good if I say, "I like this" and can't explain why. But I think that also shows that I care about them succeeding, that I want them to, and that I'm not here to tear them down. After all, if I was here to tear them down, would I really devote that much time and energy into it? I've got better things to do, honestly.

Great post. I'm glad you didn't keep it inside.