Giving Advice

Sunday, June 20, 2010
What do you do when a good friend or relative asks you to read her manuscript, give it a "critique" (or at least tell her what you think of it), and. . .it's not good? Not only is it not good, but it also breaks all the rules of writing--all the rules that first-time authors are definitely supposed to follow. She makes mistakes like changing points of view without any sort of pattern, using cliche sentences and story lines, and including improper grammar and punctuation. What do you do?

Do you save your relationship and tell her it's great? Do you tell her a few things you like and gently explain some of the mistakes? Do you offer resources she should read before she continues writing? OR do you just give a completely honest critique because she asked for it?

Some published authors I know won't read people's manuscripts for this very reason. They don't want to put themselves in a situation where someone close to them has hurt feelings. Let's face it--we 're all close to our writing; and even if we know there are problems with our story and we want to learn how to fix them, it still hurts when every single person who reads our work doesn't think it's brilliant.

It's hard to say no, however, when someone very close to you is excited about writing and asks you to read a manuscript and give your opinion. So, what do you do? Has this ever happened to you? How did you handle it? If you did give honest advice, how did the receiver take it? Did the person even listen to you?

On a day when we celebrate fathers (Happy Father's Day! to any dads or soon-to-be dads out there) and think about all the advice our own dads have given us over the years, I thought it would be appropriate to ponder this situation about giving advice (critiques), which is sure to happen to many of us writers at sometime in our lives.

post by Margo L. Dill,
photo by AMagill


Jean Sarauer said...

I haven't been put in this situation yet, thank goodness :) My plan is to avoid it at all costs. My best means of escape will come from pleading that I'm too busy to do justice to the job, I'm not an expert on the genre, and that I don't mix business with personal relationships. Those are the best excuses I have, so hopefully they'll work :)

Jodi Webb said...

I have something I want someone to read but I don't want to put anyone in that uncomfortable situation. I'm beginning to think a professional critique is my best bet. No one has ever asked for my opinion(what do I know). Maybe I would tell them a professional critiquer would do a better job than me(true).

Dot Hearn said...

I understand what you are saying and it makes sense. But there are also some potential in-between responses -- maybe it doesn't have to be a choice between saving the friendship and lying, or telling them that it stinks. And I do agree that sometimes just not reading it is the most appropriate thing to do.

Or this: you can make it a policy and then say that you don't do critiques for friends.

But here's something else that can be done. There are levels of feedback that are not critique - that are not a 'boy is this awful, you should stop writing' or 'this is award winning prose, keep at it.'

What I'm thinking about is writer-driven feedback. The writer picks a couple things to have the reader look for and give feedback on. I have done this for friends.

I agree that I wouldn't give an in-depth critique level analysis to a friend's book. Even if I did feel qualified to do that. Even if we were good friends and they said it would be okay. But what I will do for friends is read stories and poems and offer my reaction. And I would read a friend's book and do the same thing.

What I do is ask what they want me to focus on (two or three things): such as consistency of tense or voice, to see where I feel either drawn into the story or pulled out by something - things like that.

I think that sometimes we can give advice or feedback to friends. And sometimes not. I think I can usually share my reactions and feelings about a friend's writing with them. Not always - but if we're clear up front what I will or won't do, it hasn't been a problem.

I'll leave the big critiques and judgments of quality about my friends' writing to others.

Margo Dill said...

I agree having a policy and sticking to it is probably the best bet, but what if it's your sister or very best friend? That's just hard! :) Jodi--or a critique group is another thought. I think when you go to a critique group you expect to hear what is working and what is not in your manuscript. You can tell if you are in a good critique group after a couple times by listening to what people are saying--do they read writing books or magazines, do they want to be published, do they go to conferences? Are they really working at their own writing? A critique group can also be an option. That's where I take my work. Dot--great points that we can all learn from!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I recommend that they join a forum like Absolute Write, where they can find people with absolutely no connection to themselves who are willing to critique.

Excerpts can be posted if a particular section is causing some concern, or they can post in the Beta thread and find a beta reader.

I did help my husband's cousin out a bit, but she was genuinely wanting some feedback and not just a pat on the back.

Elizabeth King Humphrey said...

Sometimes, I've found, if the work seems problematic on several levels, it is consistently so. When I have worked with beginning writers, I tend to ask them a lot of questions that can tease out the issues, such as: "Did you mean to shift POV in the middle of this scene?"
Often I find that beginning writers may not be aware of some of the tools or rules they have at their disposal and when I critique, I like to bring attention to areas that need some work.
I'll also explain that editing is hard work and there are layers to editing...One pass through definitely does not catch everything and that they might need to get other people to work with them, including an person for hire.
I will also almost always recommend books on craft that might speak to the areas of their weakness.
Nice thought-provoking post, Margo!

Ann Goldberg said...

What I usually do is find something good to say e.g. the story line is great / it's a wonderful idea / I really agree with your conclusion and then suggest that it needs tweaking to bring out the best in it and suggest they join a writing course ( and tell them that I still do different courses all the time) and get full feedback from their tutor.

Margo Dill said...

What an excellent way to handle it!


Laura said...

What a toughie! Great question.
With critique it's important to consider what the writer is wanting from you. Is it her very first time showing someone her writing and is she just trying to build her confidence? Then I would point out the best bits, and show her her strengths. Then I would suggest a few areas where she might want to improve, but keep it gentle.
If however she is more serious and looking for representation or to submit her work somewhere, then I would expect her to be more accepting of constructive criticism (and she would thank me later!!). As others have commented, this is where a critique group or someone out of your close circle can help - it's just easier to hear criticism from someone you don't know over a friend or family member. As Ann mentioned, a writing course is always a good idea too.

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