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I recently shared an excerpt from my writing with friends who are acting as casual 'beta alpha-readers' (I use this term extremely loosely), partly as they have more lived experience with, and sensitivity to some of the topics in my writing (being a woman and/or plus-sized, something I'd asked about before).

It did not got well, as I had written some very raw stuff about a character being mistreated due to their size in an unrealistic way.

In the excerpt the main character is forcibly made to wear some armour by their mother (who essentially has super strength), in preparation for a festival. I wrote it such that the armour clearly doesn't fit and it looked like neither character noticed until the main character being forced into it couldn't breathe.

On re-reading the excerpt I identified two issues:

  1. On reflection the scene was darker/more extreme than I needed, and should have had a content warning specific to the topics my 'beta alpha-readers' are helping with. Part of this is because I wrote a character more extremely than would be expected, and I'm figuring out how best change this.
  2. After re-reading the preceding scene, the excerpt lacked any context or build up to indicate the direction it was heading in. Prior to the scene in the excerpt, the main character is clearly aware of the issue, but doesn't react in time. Instead I dropped the 'beta alpha-readers' into a moment just before the action.

I'm limited on how much I can share with my friends at a time (both the chat client message length limits, and how much I can expect them to read at a time), and I didn't catch the troubling themes myself. In retrospect, I had written the excerpt in a rush, and then not reread before sharing.

How can I best warn/prepare my friends who are doing me a favour by reading these small excerpts, and prevent over sharing distressing stuff?

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    I think you made 2 good points about how to have prepared the readers better Apr 26 at 19:18
  • @JoelleBoulet I've yet to put it into practice, so I'm holding off the self-answer for now Apr 26 at 20:25
  • I think technically these are alpha readers indiesunlimited.com/2016/12/06/…
    – DWKraus
    Apr 26 at 22:26
  • I'm not an alpha or beta reader - just a (final?) reader but if your material upset me, I'd consider one of two options. Did your writing upset me because of me? (So you succeeded - got a valid emotional response - thinking ensues) or because of you (you did a bad written job, I'm affected by your issues or something like them and you didn't capture it). As neither alpha or beta, I don't understand why you care to shield their feelings? Maybe you write like an arsehole, insensitive scum - better to let your test readers tell you surely? ... Apr 27 at 17:42
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    ... Of course I hope you don't write like that . but you shouldn't be altering writing to shield your test reader. Caveat: of course say "I'd like you to read this, but it does involve torture" or whatever". Then they have the option of saying, no thanks. but I don't see the utility of not "over sharing" to them what you will share to everyone later, Apr 27 at 17:44

2 Answers 2

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Adapt the Consent Checklist

The RPG Consent Checklist is a list of potentially objectionable things that might be encountered in an RPG. Each item has checkboxes for the player to indicate how they feel about each item: red means don't ever show it, yellow means show it offscreen or maybe after a discussion, and green means that there are no objections (currently). There are also blank lines at the end for you to do write-ins.

While I have never seen something like this used outside the context of RPGs, I think it would be a good tool here.

Have everyone fill out the sheet once, and allow them to update it as they see fit between readings. You should also set the expectation that they can stop reading if they don't like the subject (even if it's not written down on their sheet).

The checklist is not a perfect tool out of the box because not everything is represented (though it does contain a number of items I would never have considered otherwise). In your case, not fitting into tight clothing/armor could be considered claustrophobia or physical restraint, but it's a stretch.

However, you know that you want to do themes that explore the challenges of being overweight so bring that into the discussion. Maybe someone else would have thought of it. Maybe it would have come up in a completely different context (e.g. asthma).

Using this tool means that you can be proactive instead of reactive. Instead of only figuring this stuff out when you've already written your story and handed it off, you should have some idea before you put pen to paper. Do you write about red or yellow topics? You decide what to do. You can still write freely and share your work with other people (just not your friends who would be bothered by it).

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The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune:

I think that technically what you are using these folk for is as alpha readers. That's fine, but the expectations of alpha readers is a little higher than beta readers. They by definition are looking at raw product. They should know what they are getting, and if you don't think they can handle it, then maybe you need to save them for beta readers later on when the product is cleaned up.

But, you say, I REALLY need them to do this! That may be true, but finding good readers is a hard process. A good beta reader is a hard thing to find as well. You may want to do more writing and editing before handing it on to others, and if format is an issue, see if you can switch to something like e-mail that supports a larger version. If you're going to dump the early unformed trash on people, be sure they are willing to be garbage collectors.

You may be a bit too dependent on positive feedback about your work. Insecurity is an absurdly common thing for writers, but you need to cultivate the willingness to write a bunch and get criticism, or you'll never make good progress. From personal experience, DON'T write your passion project first!!! You need to cut your teeth on some material you won't be heartbroken to have torn to shreds and critiqued to death. I hate short stories, but even I will admit that the discipline of trying yo wrap up an entire point and plot in a small package is valuable. Just don't ask me to share the first, second, third or fourth story I wrote. They aren't pretty.

  • As for the emotional reaction: The LAST thing you want to do is reduce the impact of the scene to your beta readers! The whole point of beta readers is to tell you what doesn’t work quite right. If you inoculate your beta readers, you reduce the authenticity of their reaction. Are you going to put a warning in the final book, “This chapter may offend some readers, discretion is advised”? If you rewrite the scene with hints about what is going to happen, or mellow the severity, then you’ve learned something. If it doesn’t upset them, it’s okay. But you don’t want to make it more palatable if it isn’t.
  • If any of your readers take offense at how you write, then be clear that you’re still learning to write and being experimental. Then thank them for their valuable feedback. If they can’t separate you from your writing, then let them read the finished product, not the raw content.
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  • The negative feedback wasn't 'this was badly written' it was more 'this is insensitively/offensively written'... Let me go back and clarify that in my question Apr 27 at 13:05
  • @ProseFerret I updated my answer. If you think anything is going to personally alienate your readers, they probably shouldn’t be reading at this stage. Just be clear it’s experimental and you want genuine reactions.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 27 at 16:43
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    @ProseFerret PS Thank you for your valuable feedback on this answer. ;-)
    – DWKraus
    Apr 27 at 16:48

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