No, I won’t be discussing negative MS comments from beta readers per se, because that’s to be expected, probably inevitable if you find some really good beta readers, and there are a lot of blog posts out there that discuss how to deal with negative feedback about your MS. I’m not even going to discuss bad beta readers, those whose only feedback is “I loved it!” or “This is how I would do it.”
This blog post is about toxic beta readers. Just like there are toxic people out there who seek to destroy anything uplifting about the world around them, toxic beta readers seek to destroy anything positive about your novel.
How do I know? Because I’ve been subjected to one. Having grown up with, worked with, and even dated a toxic person once upon a time, it’s pretty easy for me to spot them as soon as they talk (or comment). I’ve developed a pretty thick skin in how to handle situations involving toxic people and to brush them and whatever they have to say off.
That doesn’t mean they still don’t bug the hell out of me.
Let me set this straight: Brutal honesty is one thing; toxicity is another. Brutal honesty is ‘telling it like it is’. I like brutal honesty, because it’s what I need to hear in order to improve, or at the very least be motivated to improve. Toxicity, on the other hand, is unnecessary, or elevated, negativity. Bryn Donovan wrote a great article on how to spot a toxic beta reader, and I must say that list is all too familiar. In fact, having been the ire of one, I’d like to add to the list:
A Toxic Beta Reader is:
– Unprofessional: Discourteous, disrespectful, and rude comments all say more things about the person hurling them than the target receiving them. My day job is a ‘very’ professional environment. Any hint of unprofessionalism or rudeness from me risks lost business, even if they’re my least favorite customer and they’re flat out wrong about something. My MS has errors in it for sure, but to be condescending in pointing them out tells me that someone only knows how to respond to mistakes by being negative. In any other workplace, this person would be reprimanded, if not fired, for treating a client this way. There are professional ways to refute something without tearing someone down.
– Someone who has nothing good to say about your writing: I’ve read published books that are boring, redundant, a chore, with bad grammar, inconsistencies, confusing sentences etc. But even in the worst book, I found something I liked. It may have only been a scene or a character, but I can always find something that connects to me in some way. The best beta readers will point this out, setting up examples to use when they reach a part in the manuscript that lacks. A toxic beta reader doesn’t even want to acknowledge them.
– Not going to be helpful even if they ‘do’ give advice: It’s said that the more negativity surrounding advice, the less likely you are to consider it. And why should you? Everyone can be passive-aggressive at times, but people can undermine their own advice if it’s presented solely in this manner. Do not take their word as gospel – if you really are uncertain, get another opinion.
– Smears not only your writing, but you as a person: Yes, you read that right. This toxic beta reader not only had negative things to say about my writing, but made presumptions about me as a person, setting up an ad hominem-like stance to ‘justify’ their comments about me. This is simply uncalled for, in any situation. It means they are so desperate for reasons to be condescending, they will construct their own image of you and tear it down.
How to Deal with A Toxic Beta Reader (or any toxic person)
I know firsthand how negativity can eat away at you. It gnaws at me for days, whether it happens at work, my personal life, or with strangers. If you ever find yourself the target of toxicity, whether from a beta reader or otherwise, here’s how to get over that dump the person left on your life:
– Don’t get discouraged: A toxic person’s goal is to make everyone around them as unhappy as they are. Don’t give in to what they want, and don’t give up on whatever it is they’re trying to rip from you.
– Don’t respond directly to the person: As tempting as it is to reply or go to their website, blog, Twitter, etc. to tear them a new one or let the world know how horrible they are, don’t. Just, don’t – it’s childish and makes you no better than them. The high road usually takes some climbing.
– Swallow your pride: Okay, okay, so you made a mistake or dared to have a different method to do something! So what? Remember that you do not need to prove anything to toxic people, so don’t try to defend yourself against them (you’ll never convince them anyway). Do whatever you need to in order to get over the negativity – have a drink, eat some ice cream, play with your pets, listen to your favorite song, cry, (write a blog post), etc. Then move on.
– If you’re a writer, continue to write…and look for good beta readers: They’re out there, and you can make up for lost time by getting the most out of them. Remember, a good beta reader will give you feedback in the best possible way, even if your plot hole is the size of the moon.
Why You Don’t Need Them
As I mentioned, I grew up with a toxic person. The relief I felt when I was free of them was…very much like a burden lifted. I did not have to please this person or worry about their judgment any longer. The same goes for your toxic beta readers. Get rid of them, because:
They cut your confidence: Remember the first time you did, well, anything new? I’m willing to bet your confidence wasn’t exactly at its peak. If you’re at the point you’re sending your MS to beta readers, you’re confident enough in your story itself but not quite confident that people will like it. A good beta reader will be honest if they didn’t like it, and explain why. A toxic beta reader not only will (likely) not enjoy the story, but find a way to imply that it’s a lost cause…and shame you for writing it.
They need you more than you need them: This goes back to passive-aggressiveness. I mentioned that, in my naïve youth, I dated a toxic person. Every time we got into an argument, he found a way to blame me, then continue to insist that I ‘needed’ him for support because I was so prone to mistakes on my own. The relationship didn’t last long, but I took a lot of abuse solely so that he could be the ‘better half’. A toxic beta reader will project that they are the best at what they do, and that without their ‘advice’ you can’t possibly know what to do next. Don’t ever, ever give in to this type of manipulation.
We have enough negativity we can’t control already: Look, negativity is a part of life. You’re going to get criticized for something eventually, and you’re going to be judgmental against someone for something at some time. Its normal, it’s natural, and dare I even say it’s a necessity for growth. For toxic people, this natural negativity is the fuel with which they burn other people and then seek the fire for warmth. Toxic beta readers will twist a normal ‘negative’ comment (“I’m not sure this is the right word choice here. You might want to double check to ensure this is what you meant.”) into a flaming debacle (“I can’t believe you chose this word. You have no idea what it means, do you? Did you even bother to check if this is the right word? Unbelievable.”). You don’t need more negativity than there already is in the world.
Chances are, they don’t want a challenge: I’m not going to excuse a bad MS, and sometimes the book and the beta reader just don’t mesh. It happens. That being said, it’s a lot easier to give up on something than to pursue it. Writing a novel is a feat in of itself, and so is sending it to beta readers. Beta reading, I imagine, is also a feat! Most beta readers know your MS going to have errors, and pretty much expect it. But toxic beta readers don’t want to be bothered with them. They want something easy and familiar, and how dare you challenge their limited acceptance with a spelling error in your first page, or not hook them with your first paragraph. You monster.
They’re not going to help: Beta readers help you improve by shining a light on your mistakes. A toxic beta reader thinks your MS is a mistake. See the difference?
And last, but perhaps most important…
You can’t please them: Trust me, you just can’t please toxic people. Nothing can. That’s why they’re toxic.
Okay, so this is probably my longest blog to date, but I feel it’s warranted because toxic people is something familiar to me and I’ve learned how to manage their negativity. I’m not giving up on my MS because of one person, and neither should you if you find yourself in the same situation. I have two beta readers lined up for June/July and am awaiting feedback on my non-paid one (who doesn’t have a deadline). If they all follow through that will make four out of five.