by K. A. Hamilton
The other day, a colleague asked if I could give feedback on some of his writing. I said I'd be honored, and meant it; solicitation of opinion means a lot to me, especially from other writers. But then he became uncharacteristically quiet, muttering something about characters.... voice… point of view... and how he'd really like to get my opinion of it as a woman.
If you're a female who is even vaguely associated with books, you've probably been there. It's a question oft-accompanied by a hesitant tone and downturned (but eager) eyes. I think most writers intuit it as an inherently impolite query, and they're not wrong. It's a little like inviting someone out for a beer, or a first date, or any other activity where interpersonal boundaries are meant to come down. Beta-reading is a situation that requires vulnerability of both the ask-er and the ask-ee.
Why? Because it’s a request for review of content, not craft, which can reveal elephant-sized rifts in worldview. Creative writers know this all too well, and have developed an entire pedagogy to avoid being overly-direct. Instructors are taught to employ the “sandwich method,” swaddling criticism in twice the compliments. In workshops, we blind ourselves to everything but technique – and rightfully so. An honest assessment of “likeability” could only end in bloodshed.
Yet sugar-coating the female (or any other target group) experience is counter-productive, for both author and reviewer. So what can you do when asked? Options include a) saying “no,” b) sidestepping and defaulting to craft, or c) changing your number and never showing your face in town again. But about option d): “yes?” Then it’s time to get personal.
In an honest review, I feel some disclaimers are needed. First is a notice to the writer: in this realm, there is more value in candor than encouragement. This lets them know that the breach of code is made with their growth in mind. The second is a big fat reminder that your feedback is rooted in your own experiences only, and does not represent that of every member of your gender/race/orientation/fill-in-the-blank. (I’ve had times when I felt I was being asked for permission, or to supply some kind of “kid-tested, mother-approved” checkbox. Not only would I have withheld it in those cases, but it was also never mine to give.)
But what if you’re the one soliciting this sort of feedback? You’re reading this blog post and now it all just seems so complicated and awkward… should you even ask? My answer is an emphatic yes. However, I have some equally-urgent disclaimers for you. First, consider who you’re asking. Do they seem comfortable talking about their beliefs in your company? Are they a peer on even footing, who is capable of declining? Do you think you’d have fun getting a beer together? If the answer to all of these is “yes,” then you have yourself a candidate.
But the work doesn’t end there. The next step is listening. When you received feedback, keep this in mind: if your beta-reader says things that are difficult to hear, they almost certainly know it and are trusting you not to freak out. Congrats, you’re on your way to a beautiful friendship. If something is hard to take and you absolutely must say something to the contrary… don’t. Bite your tongue and say “thank you” instead. Later, after you’ve had some time to think about it, find a way to phrase it as an open question (bonus points if you research the answer on your own time). You may be surprised at what you learn. Art imitates life, and there is much in the world to be critical of. Your beta-reader does not have the luxury of compartmentalizing literature and day-to-day experience, because the two often perpetuate one another. Whatever they say, don’t take it personally. But do try to internalize it.
I wrote three full pages of feedback for my colleague: two “as a writer” and one “as a woman.” The more I reviewed according to my experiences, the closer I got to revealing myself not just as a woman, but as… me. I sent it on a Sunday, crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t make Monday awkward. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. But we’re opting for coffee instead of beer.
K. A. Hamilton is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.