If you’re an editor or frequent beta reader, you’ve probably had the experience of finding something problematic in a manuscript. Since the work isn’t published yet, you’re uniquely positioned to convince the writer to make positive changes. But if the writer didn’t ask for that type of feedback, how can you get them to listen instead of biting your head off?
Since Mythcreants regularly gives social justice feedback as part of our editing services, we’d like to share our approach with those who are doing it for the first time. For anyone who depends on writer goodwill to make ends meet, this approach cannot eliminate the risk of ruining the relationship. However, writers who still get pissed in these circumstances probably do not value equality. If you have the ability to turn down some writers, you may not want to work with the ones who respond badly.
Please note that this situation is different from discussing popular stories. Public criticism is about raising awareness. During criticism, our assumption is that the story will never change, and it’s better to be completely frank about its failings.
On the other hand, persuading a writer to make changes involves a significant amount of emotional labor. For this reason, I must make something crystal clear: if someone finds problematic content targeting their own group and they aren’t being adequately paid for intense emotional labor, they’re under no obligation to mince words. Forcing marginalized people to spend their time and energy carefully educating privileged people is part of the pattern of oppression. Please keep this in mind if you hire a marginalized editor who has not specifically signed up to be a sensitivity consultant.
However, if the problematic content hurts a group you are not part of, please accept your responsibility as a person of privilege in this context. If you are angry, do not vent at the writer. Go cool off, and then do the emotional labor so that the people being targeted don’t have to. As much as it may be upsetting for you, it’s almost certainly more upsetting for them.
Gauging the Writer’s Motivation
If you’re beta reading online, you may have little idea of what motivated the writer to include problematic content. However, if you’re able to ask the writer careful questions, or you simply know them well, assessing their motivation can help you find the right approach.
Let’s go over some different motivations and how to respond to them.
Cluelessness – Assume This by Default
Start by assuming the writer has good intentions. If they wrote something deeply hurtful, it may feel like they must be doing it on purpose. But most writers are pretty terrible at communicating their intent. All sorts of bizarre messages can end up in a story simply because the author wasn’t thinking very hard and is ignorant about the issues in question. In many cases, the writer is merely copying toxic depictions they saw elsewhere.
A clueless person is usually open to making changes, but they may not be well versed in social justice issues. That means they need approachable language and beginner-level information. If they aren’t used to social justice feedback, they’re also more likely to feel threatened by it. Tread lightly.
Trying to Send Positive Messages
It’s a sad truth that many writers who want to send positive messages about social justice do so in ways that are not only unproductive but also make their stories uncomfortable for the marginalized group in question. In a worst-case scenario, it may look like their story supports bigotry.
The most common sign is unpleasant and often extreme depictions of oppression that aren’t employed in constructive ways.* For instance, a fantasy story might feature a kingdom that is severely patriarchal. This oppression might provide a few obstacles for some of the female characters but otherwise go without remark. In some cases, the villain of the story is fighting oppression, which could send the message that fighting oppression is bad. In a worst-case scenario, inequality could be built into the world. For instance, perhaps men have magical powers and women do not.
This happens because writers mistakenly believe that fighting oppression requires depicting it. Most of these writers care about social justice and want to write ethical works. This means you don’t have to do as much tiptoeing around the issue, and they’re much more likely to make changes. Some of them will even be relieved that doing the right thing means they can just remove the oppression from their story rather than sweat over it.
If a writer says they want to send a positive message but resists making changes that would do that, something else is going on. More likely than not, they are attached to the regressive tropes they’re using, and social justice commentary was their way of trying to have their cake and eat it too.
Being Attached to Regressive Tropes
Many people have a fondness for the regressive tropes they’ve seen in their favorite stories. This is particularly likely for romances, any type of gender roles, and classic genre tropes such as evil orcs. Since tropes are also frequently repeated without much thought, it can be hard to tell the difference between a writer who’s simply regurgitating something and a writer who loves it. The biggest sign of writer enthusiasm is how much detail they use. Are the gender roles vaguely referred to, or are their exact specifications described in depth?
If the writer hasn’t thought much about it, they’re in the “clueless” category. It’s also possible they like the trope but aren’t so attached to it that they’ll resist making important changes. However, sometimes writers really like their regressive tropes, making them a central conceit of the story.
Asking a writer to give up a part of the story they love is unlikely to have any effect. In that case, the best you can do is get them to open up about what they want. The better you understand exactly what it is about their regressive trope that appeals to them, the more you can help them find ways of mitigating the damage while preserving the aspects they like. You have to work with their passion, not against it.
Rebelling Against Other Progressives
Today, many people socialize in an echo chamber, rarely encountering people on the other side of the political spectrum. This can lead people to focus on the arguments between them and their like-minded fellows. Sometimes, progressives need to vent their frustrations with other progressives.
However, even the most valid criticisms can be expressed poorly. Writers in this situation often stumble into sending messages that are more regressive than they intended. If they are isolated from people who purposely spread hate, they may not understand how their argument unintentionally reinforces hateful messages.
The biggest sign of this is when a progressive writer expresses something that is strangely regressive and feels out of character. For instance, a feminist author could get frustrated about the often-implied message that female characters need to abandon traditionally feminine things. The author might then write a story that emphasizes women not being able to fight as well as men.
Writers in this position need a reminder of what hate groups are doing, and they need to understand how their depiction will appear to reinforce that. If they are trying to be edgy to spite their fellows, they should be reminded that edginess needs to be channeled into something constructive, or it will simply play into bigoted hands. Depending on what their grievance is, it’s possible they can make their critique without spreading harm.
Liking the Abstract Idea of Being Edgy
Unfortunately, in many writing circles, people are still passing around the idea that works are only serious or original if they are edgy and provocative to some degree. This is not true, but nonetheless, some writers have been led to believe it.
Not all writers who are trying to be edgy are the same. Many of them like the idea of being edgy but don’t understand what this means in practice: that real people will be hurt and upset with them. To them, edginess is something that will get a few shocked gasps, followed by a round of impressed murmurs. Or they might think it will bother a few stuffy people far away.
This is most likely of writers who discuss edginess or provocativeness as though they are positive qualities of a story but who otherwise have noncombative personalities. If they try to get along with everyone or they package themselves as an apolitical, middle-of-the-road type of person, they may be thinking of edginess in entirely abstract terms.
Writers in this mindset need to be reminded that politics is not a game; it is something that has a real impact on real people. Give them information that shows how what they’re doing relates to severe injustices that are happening in real life. In addition, they are often scared off once they understand how upset people will be with them. For instance, if they have rape in their story, sending them a link to a post where an assault survivor discusses how upsetting depictions of rape are will probably change their mind.
Genuinely Wanting to Be Provocative
This is one of the toughest cases, aside from someone who actually wants to spread bigotry. Some writers who want to be edgy actually do understand what that means in a practical sense. In many cases, they’ve even made being provocative into part of their identity as a writer.
Do they appear to have a combative personality? In their writer’s bio or description of themself, do they mention being edgy and provocative? Do they rant about snowflakes? Are they sorry yet not sorry about “offending” people? Are they a “no-holds-barred” storyteller who “challenges” their audience? Do they show any other sign that they know they will make people genuinely mad, and they’re good with it?
In this case, ethical arguments are unlikely to work. They’ve probably already heard them and built an identity around ignoring them. In fact, if you make ethical arguments, they may dismiss you as an SJW and stop listening to whatever you say on the subject.
Instead, you have to make an argument that addresses something they care about. They may not care about human suffering, but since they’re engaging in edgy grandstanding, they probably care about their appearance as a writer.
Please, please remember that the following tactic is unethical in other contexts. Writers are already scared enough about how they will appear to others; preying on those insecurities is cruel and creates an unhealthy environment. Writing advice should focus on how bad practices impact the reader experience, not on how they make the writer look. However, if the writer cares more about how they look than about human beings, this may be the only way to get through to them.
So what do you do? Tell them their toxic tropes are super cliché. They probably are. Tell them that everyone and their goldfish is trying to be edgy. This is absolutely true. Tell them that their shocking twist was utterly predictable, because you’ve already seen 10 like it. Tell them the problematic content is immature, cheap, derivative, unoriginal, or, perhaps the biggest insult of them all: amateurish. Tell them agents and publishers will take one look at that content and conclude they are a complete noob.
If you succeed in convincing them that their problematic content will make them look like they aren’t a “real” writer, they will probably change it.
If the writer is deliberately trying to spread harm, there’s nothing you can do as an editor or beta reader. At that point, you’d be trying to change their values, not just what’s in their story. In that case, extract yourself from the situation if you can, and stop giving feedback on their work.
Gently Informing the Writer
When broaching the subject, your goal is to give them a deep understanding of the issue without making them feel defensive. Once the writer gets defensive, they’ll stop listening, and they’ll be more likely to self-validate by doubling down than to acknowledge they made a mistake.
Focus on Reader Responses
You might think writers don’t care about the reactions of a small minority of readers, but in most cases, they do. The average writer wants to believe their story is for everyone – that any human being could pick up their book and enjoy it. Occasionally you may run into a writer that’s seasoned enough to let go of this dream, but this is not the majority of people seeking feedback on a manuscript.
This means that if you inform the writer that their content will alienate a specific group of readers, even if that group is small, they are likely to pay attention. Describe for them how the marginalized group they are hurting is likely to react to the story. Will they be upset? Frustrated? Uncomfortable? Disappointed?
If you’re a paid editor, the writer will probably take your word for it. You might say something like, “many female readers will be turned off by the patriarchy in this setting, because that means it will remind them of the stressful parts of their lives instead of being fun wish fulfillment like you intended.”
If you’re a beta reader, you may want to boost your credibility by describing how you know this. If you are part of the group being targeted, you can use your own experiences if you’re comfortable sharing them.
- “I read lots of book reviews by Black women, and whenever they run into a sassy Black woman character, they mention how much the stereotype bothers them.”
- “I have a good friend with this disability, and he’s told me how incredibly disappointing it is for him whenever he finds a character like him and then the disability is erased using fictional technology.”
- “As a queer person, seeing romantic relationships referred to as ‘boy meets girl’ makes me feel like I wouldn’t be welcome in this fantasy world or with these characters.”
You don’t need statistics to give yourself more credibility. Statistics can be helpful in some cases, but they are not as convincing as we all wish they were. You also don’t need to defend reader reactions as perfectly logical, just understandable. For instance, you can tell the writer that while they don’t actually have the “disability mercy killing” trope in their story, what they do have is reminiscent of it. Because this trope is so horrible and upsetting, disabled readers will be bothered by depictions that come anywhere close to it.
Show, Don’t Tell
Unfortunately, words such as “sexist,” “racist,” “ableist,” etc., are very likely to make the writer feel defensive. Those are probably accurate labels for the content you want them to change, but, unfortunately, most people believe they are never bigoted, even unintentionally. They’re wrong, but you can’t give them an entire social justice education in one go. If you want to convince them to change their story, you’ll be more likely to succeed if you don’t use those words.
Other terms like “stigmatizing,” “exoticizing,” “objectifying,” or “dehumanizing” may not be quite as alienating, but they rely on a strong understanding of social justice that the writer probably doesn’t have. While people may technically know what those words mean, it will be hard for them to connect that abstract idea to what what they’re doing in their story. The word “stereotype” is more widely used, but don’t rely on writers to understand why using stereotypes is harmful.
Plus, just like for fiction, stating these terms will never be as convincing as breaking down how their story sends the wrong message. If you simply call their description “objectifying,” that depends on the writer to take your word for it. Give them some logic they can follow.
- Telling: Togura Ikonoka‘s title of “The Cripple Who Is Whole” includes an ableist slur and reinforces negative stereotypes about disability.
- Showing: Togura Ikonoka’s title of “The Cripple Who Is Whole” suggests that simply being a “whole” disabled person is more incredible than his magical powers, experience, or other outstanding attributes. This also implies that the average disabled person is somehow not whole. The word “cripple” is also considered a slur by the disability community because it has connotations that suggest disabled people are helpless and pitiable.
Of course, if the writer demonstrates they are comfortable with social justice language, you can use it with them. Even then, general terms are not a replacement for breaking down why their content is hurtful in a way they can understand.
Tie It to Larger Real-Life Issues
Because of regressive messaging, many people have come to think of social justice as a matter of “offense” or “political correctness,” not of real-life harm. For this reason, many writers could use a reminder that these small pieces of content are part of a cultural climate that destroys lives.
Look up a tangible harm you can use to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue you’re describing. That can include poverty, hate crimes, harassment, assault, or suicide that results from the type of messages they are sending in their work. Even mentioning that marginalized people receive continuous negative comments when trying to go about their lives makes the harm feel more tangible.
- “Reading stories where every couple is heterosexual can make queer people, particularly children and teens, feel really alone. Queer teens are more likely to attempt suicide than straight teens because of this stress, and having affirmation of their identity makes a difference.”
- “The idea that women often use their looks to manipulate men, as this character does, is used in real life to blame the victims of sexual harassment and assault instead of holding perpetrators responsible for it.”
- “Black readers could become upset when they see a Black character’s hair is described as ‘nappy,’ because the term has been employed for hundreds of years to characterize their hair as unappealing. Black women are still likely to be fired from their jobs if they don’t spend lots of time and money applying strong chemicals to their hair to make it fit white beauty standards.”
If the writer may not believe what you say, you can link to a source online that describes the issue.
Soften the Blow
Like with any criticism, social justice feedback will go over much better if you give the writer some reassurance. In particular, you want to keep them from concluding that your feedback is an attack on them personally.
You can start reassuring them by praising their good intentions, particularly if they’re making an effort to diversify their characters or trying to send positive messages. If they were just trying to be edgy or fulfill some other storytelling concern, you can tell them that you understand what they were aiming for.
Praising other aspects of the story is also helpful. For instance, you might tell them that they already have lots of great surprises in their story, so they’ll be fine without an edgy twist in this scene. Many writers are starved for positive feedback, so this can make a huge difference to their mood.
It’s also helpful to tell them what problematic things they aren’t doing. Understanding that their depiction could be worse helps them put feedback into perspective.
- “I love your depiction of Zuri; it’s a delight to see a kickass Black woman actually live to the end in a story where many characters are killed by zombies. The only thing is that using the word ‘nappy’ to describe her hair is likely to upset Black readers, since it has a long history of being used to characterize natural Black hair as unappealing. Many Black women are still fired from their jobs because they didn’t apply strong chemicals to their hair to make it fit white beauty standards. You already have lots of vivid descriptors, so I think you could just take that word out and you’d be fine.”
- “It’s wonderful that you’ve included several queer characters in your stories; I wish more books would do that. However, my queer friends have actually told me that they’re really disappointed when they run into antiqueer oppression in the books they read. They’d much prefer taking a break from that stuff and getting some fun wish fulfillment instead. If you want to support queer people, just showing queer characters doing cool things is a great way to do that. If you take the antiqueer oppression out of your story, my queer friends will eat it right up.”
- “I found the fight scenes with the orcs to be riveting, and they provide plenty of threat for your heroes – great work. However, right now the orcs appear to be inherently evil. That’s disappointing, since it means they don’t stand out from other depictions of orcs, and there isn’t much nuance to their personalities or culture. It can also make readers of color uncomfortable, since Tolkien designed orcs based on Asian stereotypes, orcs are usually depicted as dark skinned, and the idea of evil races has often been applied to human groups. If you simply clarify that these are specifically orc bandits or orc extremists making trouble, that will help put readers of color at ease and leave you room to do some interesting worldbuilding with your orcs later.”
In the above examples, I also emphasized the ease and simplicity of the changes. Naturally, writers want to avoid work, even if they’re asking for feedback.
Educating others on these issues is an important responsibility for anyone with privilege. For those who are marginalized in this context, it may feel like a necessity. But we all have limited time and energy, and we won’t convince writers to make changes every time. If you can, please say something. However, you can’t save the world by yourself, so don’t burn yourself out trying.
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