What NOT to Do When You Ask Somone to Review Your Writing

So you’ve written something. You think it’s in a reasonable place, and now you want to find someone to read it. You’re excited and scared–someone is going to read your work! What if they hate it? What if they love it? What do you do?

I get it. It’s uncomfortable. And while I could write a list about what you should do, I’ve encountered so many faux pas lately that I’m writing about what you shouldn’t do instead.

Seriously. Please don’t do these things. They make me want to flip tables. And I shouldn’t be flipping tables when I’m supposed to be reading your work, right?

1. Don’t insult your work. Ever.

Seriously. Never. Never, ever, ever. No, not even then.

It’s very common. Someone asks you to beta their story, waits for you to agree, and vividly explains how they hate it with every fiber of their being. They cannot let you read this thing without you knowing that they know it’s deeply flawed. “It’s really awful. I have no idea how to make it suck less. Thanks so much for offering to read it anyway.” “Thanks for reading! Just FYI, the characterization is just total trash–everyone’s completely two-dimensional right now.”

Don’t. Don’t! I know how tempting this is. I did it for years. But believe me when I say it makes the entire beta experience worse. You are NOT being modest, and you’re NOT being refreshingly honest.

Look, we’ve all heard about giving constructive criticism to other people. If you’re describing your work, that advice goes for you, too. If you want a beta to look at something, you explain–neutrally–what specific issues you want them to look for. Something like “I think the pacing is slow in the middle. Can you help me figure out what to cut?” or “Can you tell me what you think about the characterization development?”

“I am really fed up with this story, I don’t know what to do, it’s terrible and awful and I don’t know how to fix it, HELP ME D:” is a feeling I understand. But you can’t tell your beta that.

If you do, you will change the tone of the review. I can look at specific, neutral issues. But when someone opens with an emotional dump, I start reading between the lines: You told me all that because you’re really uncomfortable sharing your work. You are afraid of this beta. You are so sure I’m going to say something mean that you’re bashing your self esteem before I even read it. And this is a terrible way to start a beta.

And that brings me to recommendation #2.

2. Don’t rely on betas to improve your self esteem.

Do you know what I want to do when I read a story?

  • Identify potential issues.
  • Explain why I think these are issues.
  • Suggest ways to fix them, with the understanding that the author can (if I’ve explained my concerns well enough) take or leave my changes or find other ways to address the core problems.
  • Identify things that work well. Explain why.

It’s like work. I do an analysis, explain my logic, and write down suggestions. I do NOT want to:

  • Worry that my recommendations will be used by the author to attack themselves because “they knew their story was awful” and my review is “proof.”
  • Comfort authors (particularly if they’re strangers) who are so upset about their story that they need to be talked down to a calmer place before they can even accept critique.
  • Live with the burden that my feedback is going to make a perfect stranger continue or abort a project.

Here’s how this connects to suggestion #1: If someone comes to me with constructive concerns, I assume we’ll be doing the stuff in the first list. If someone comes to me and immediately dumps on their story, I worry about the things on the second list.

Is that fair of me? Maybe not. I don’t want to be mean. I never want to be mean. But a beta should be a non-emotional, professional exchange. There shouldn’t be any judgements. I’m just making a list of potential problems and suggestions.

And if you open our discussion by dumping on your work, I immediately know I have to be extra careful not to hurt you. And this means my beta is going to be worse, and I’m going to be worrying more about you than the work.

3. If someone identifies problems with your story, don’t assume that it means you are a bad writer.

Writing is a skill. When you’re just starting out, you will have a lot to learn. And no matter how experienced we are, we always seem to hit ruts where we just keep making the same mistakes. We learn. We grow. And learning isn’t shameful.

If you make mistakes in your stories, it’s not because you’re bad, worthless, awful, or talentless. You’re just learning. We’re all learning. It’s fine.

So if a beta finds a bunch of things wrong, you can’t turn around and say “You’re right. My story wasn’t perfect. That means I will never publish, I will never be an author, my work is all worthless, and now I have to give it up forever.” No! No.

If I find a problem in a novel, I don’t think the author is stupid or worthless. I think the novel could be improved. That’s it. And if you agree with me, I hope that my review will help you analyze what you did so you can write better novels in the future. And sometimes my advice is just weird, overly specific, and not what you had in mind. Don’t feel bad about those. I have a lot to learn about being a good beta, too.

But you can’t get your self-worth tied up in this. A beta isn’t about identifying whether you are a good writer or whether your novel is worthwhile.

So that’s it. Please. Let’s make betas calm and clinical. Let’s treat them like work or workshops or creative writing classes. It’ll make betas better for everyone.

2 thoughts on “What NOT to Do When You Ask Somone to Review Your Writing

  1. You’re the ideal beta reader: identifying issues, explaining why they are issues, and offering suggestions to overcome them. I look at feedback like that as a mini-course in writing.

    1. Well, thank you! I try to approach it that way. I do an awful lot of betas for strangers on Absolute Write, and I treat it like work–I’m there to be neutral, helpful, and professional. I use non-emotional words. I explain my thinking a lot.

      Some people probably need a warmer and more loving beta experience than that, but friends are probably better for that kind of review.

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