Authors can be ass hats. Everyone knows that, especially the authors themselves. It’s frustrating to go into a situation, put a lot of thought and deliberation into helping someone just to have them fly off the handle because they don’t like your advice. It’s a waste of your time, usually, to spend an hour or so explaining something to a person who doesn’t want to listen.
What to do? Shut up and smile? Tell them they’re pretty and hope to get some good feedback on your own work?
Well, from my own personal experience as being all kinds of an ass hat, I can tell you that you do have agency over the situation. The writer might be in control of himself, but you can help him. You can get respect from the disrespectful. It just depends on talking to him in the right manner.
1. You’re being a jerk.
The writer is not an ass hat. She actually came to you for feedback because she truly wants to make her book the best it can possibly be. She has pushed her ego aside and truly wants to listen to what you have to say. She makes the effort of taking you seriously.
So you decide not to throw any punches. Without a lot of deliberation, you tell her how you really feel—and quite frankly, you didn’t like it. You don’t see it going anywhere, you’re not impressed, and you tell her so in a succinct, direct manner.
Now she has a problem.
It is really stupid to take advice you don’t agree with. On the flip side, the reason she might not agree could just be her pride. If she were to stop and really consider it, she might find that she does agree with it. Or, maybe not. Maybe it’s just not for her. She could see the merit, but she doesn’t think it applies to that context. Her gut is telling her it’s not right… or is that just her not wanting it to be right?
Even when you don’t want your pride to get in the way, it’s hard for it not to. The difference between your gut and your ego telling you something’s wrong is tiny. It feels practically the same way.
While being honest and straightforward is a good method for criticism, being a jerk isn’t, and they’re not exclusive. If you let your emotions (feelings of competition, any pent up frustration, a catharsis of knowing you’re more experienced, the catharsis of tearing a work apart) control how you speak to someone makes it more about those emotions and less about the manuscript. Being “blunt” often translates into being vague and inconsiderate. Not only that, but someone who is unapologetically cruel tends to be naïve. Sure, we have divas of the successful world, but for the most part, ass hats tend to not be asked back. And even if his skills are so great that it is worth working with him despite his attitude, he will still have to deal with the ramifications of being a jerk. Most people who have moderate success in the art world have developed diplomacy.
When someone picks his words carefully, tries to be objective, considers his point of view, and gives the author the benefit of the doubt, not only will the writer be more likely to want to take his advice, but will be more likely to understand it. (And the critic will sound smarter too.)
2. You’ve focused on the wrong things in the past.
I go to different people for different types of edits. Some beta-readers are great for finding typos. Others for finding more abstract issues. For the most part, each and every person has their place, and should be contacted during different stages of the process. On the other hand, you still want to be versatile if you want to be taken seriously.
It’s really frustrating to have a manuscript filled with red and really all it’s saying is, “I wouldn’t have written it this way.” Then you add on top of that he’s missed the huge continuity error while pointing out, “I’d write ‘racing’ instead of ‘running,’” and you end up feeling it’s a huge waste of your time.
The point to getting outsiders’ feedback is more about their new, different perspective than having them “fix your errors.”
Sure, it’s great to have someone else point out the typos, but if all he’s focusing on is word choice and grammar and missing bigger problems, the writer starts to question if he really knows what he’s talking about. He’s focusing on the paintjob when the car doesn’t have an engine.
Or, it might not have anything to do with writing at all. I’ve known readers to go off on unrelated tangents about politics or other controversial opinions. What had happened was the writer ignited a conversation, which can be a good thing, but the critic himself isn’t really doing his job. A lot of people use critique sessions as a means to segue onto other subjects (often himself). When the feedback turns to bragging, the writer is less likely to take the critic seriously.
This is especially true when style comes into consideration. Constant nitpicking on words that just may be a matter of personal taste suggests a lack of experience and respect. In writing, the forest may be defined by the trees, but the forest is still the primary concern.
3. You have different goals than the writer.
This isn’t a mistake by any means. The important thing is to be aware that this is a common occurrence, and to take the writer’s goals seriously, even if you do think they’re stupid.
Each writer has a different idea of what success is, what he’s trying to do, and how he wants the readers to react. If asked, we’d all like to be a bestseller and a Nobel Prize Winner, yet our actions actively feed into a more complex, subtle understanding of what we want.
Some authors make more literary-based decisions. Some pursue escapism first and foremost. The romance writer might be just trying to get her readers off, while the poet wants to make them think.
These differing goals are a good thing for literature. It combats homogenization, encourages originality, and is what is going to make the author unique.
The problem arises when a beta-reader assumes his goals are everyone’s and advises accordingly.
I was once in a writers’ group filled primarily with memoirists. The only other fiction writer was making a detective novel. One of the memoirists said, “I don’t like detective novels. Here’s what you need to not do…”
He was not considering her audience, spewing out a monologue on why he hated detective novels. It didn’t occur to him for a moment that maybe the people who did like them liked them for the standards that he despised.
This didn’t mean he was wrong, necessarily. But when he didn’t consider the writer’s audience or other people’s tastes, her only recourse was to ignore most of it. He wasn’t talking about what she had actually done, just advising her what not to do. She wouldn’t be able to remember all that information, and if it was important, then someone who actually like detective novels would say it again. If he had understood what she was doing, he would have been able to deliver the most relevant advice, rather than just ranting about his opinion.
By trying to help the writer succeed in the ways she determines success, a person is more able to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not always easy to tell why a critic wants you to change something, and if you’re not on the same page, it takes a lot of time to sift through what is true for you and what is true for them. If the critic, however, understands what the writer is going for, he can help explain why the advice is good for her goals.
4. You give the author no credit.
I recently got a manuscript back from a wonderful, altruistic stranger, who not only agreed to read my book, but actually did, and within a reasonable timeframe.
But as I went through the edits, determined to make her time worthwhile, I found myself with a problem: She wasn’t giving me any credit.
Unlike when someone is being a jerk, this problem comes not out of malice, but circumstance. She gets an unpublished manuscript from a stranger, she starts to question things that she would not question in a “real” book.
This, normally, isn’t a problem until it becomes extreme.
Every time I italicized something, every time I used a dash, every sentence fragment, every play on words, she marked up. Not only did she comment, but it usually came in the form of, “Did you know you did this?”
Yes, I knew it. Do you have any idea how hard it is to accidentally italicize one word? In a “real” book, the question would be, “What is the author trying to tell me?” not, “Was this an accident?”
Writers need to give credit to their critique partners, everyone knows that. But when a beta-reader refuses to acknowledge the context of the situation, when they refused to ask why the writer does something, their critiques start sounding a little inexperienced. Especially when they’re questioning standard protocols, such as using a dash for an interruption.
Pointing out a sentence fragment that might have been intentional and might not have been is perfectly understandable. Disagreeing with an author’s choice on formatting or punctuation is the kind of comments the author’s looking for. But there should always be that understanding that the beta-reader might be in the wrong or that there are several different, perfectly acceptable, options.
After a while a writer can tell when the beta-reader thinks she’s an idiot. When the reader never asks himself why an author did something, when he can’t ever figure it out, when he always assumes it’s a mistake of out inexperience rather than choice (or even that he’s the one uninformed about the standard practices), the writer will stop taking the reader’s comments seriously. Sometimes the difference between genius and insanity is what the viewer wants to believe, and by removing all insanity you are simultaneously removing all genius.
5. You have continually enforced archaic, controversial, irrelevant, or non-existent rules.
A good editor or beta-reader will always be open-minded. The more his opinion is about if something worked now, the less likely he is to be proven wrong. When voicing concrete and absolute rules, the speaker is opening himself up for easy argument, and looking like he can’t think for himself.
This can fall under the category of “focusing on the wrong things.” Wasting time arguing about the Oxford comma is foolish. As a controversial topic in which either option is technically correct, it doesn’t matter what you convince the writer to do, someone else will tell him the opposite.
Trying to force a writer to abide by a rule that doesn’t make sense in her situation will dilute their value of your opinion. For one thing, it isn’t your opinion. It’s something anyone could have said without reading a word of the writer’s manuscript. Why would they go through the pain of a beta-read and critique if they could have just typed “What not to do in a novel” in Google?
It’s important to question those kinds of rules. There’s a reason why no one does things a certain way. Being too rule abiding can actually be a distraction. Not only that, but there’s always a chance that the rule isn’t true. Did you know that it has never been grammatically incorrect for English speakers to end a sentence in a preposition? It was a Latin grammar rule that a bunch of 1800’s scholars got together and tried to implement into our daily conversations. While it never became an official statute, their propaganda has been remembered and rarely questioned.
If you get caught preaching an untrue rule, wasting time with something that everyone has their own opinion on, or simply refusing to address the effectiveness a decision had on that specific book, you lose your credibility. It’s often a sign of inexperience or insecurity, and rarely proves the most helpful form of advice.
The best way to seem like you know what you’re talking about isn’t reciting what your English teacher told you, but rather having a respectful and critical viewpoint on the work at hand.