Sunday, March 14, 2010

Giving feedback

Yesterday I wrote about getting input on your writing. Here’s the flip side: giving input, especially to friends and writing colleagues, the most likely people to ask you.

There are few things more fraught with tension in the writing world than to be asked to read a friend’s manuscript—and it turns out to be awful. In my post of March 11, I wrote about non-writers trying to tell their often fascinating stories in poorly written books. You may well know some of these folks who’ve had amazing lives, amazing experiences, and have no clue how to create a book about them and are doing it anyway. And sometimes they want you to read those no-clue-how-to-do-it books. You want to help, you want to be kind, and you don’t want to lie. What’s a friend to do?

First, be sure you are a good reader for the story. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you’d ever pick this book up off a bookstore table. Is this genre, this story something that would interest you? If not, say so. “You know, I never read memoir. Just doesn’t really interest me. You’ll do better with a reader who is into that genre.”

Second, are you distanced enough from the friend to be able to provide feedback? If no, again excuse yourself. “I’m just too close to you and this story. I can’t bring any objectivity to the reading.”

But if you are the right kind of reader and your friendship won’t get in the way, ask for specific questions. What exactly does the writer want in terms of feedback? Is she interested in a sentence-level text edit? If that’s an area of expertise for you and you’re willing to volunteer your time, go for it; if not, suggest she hire a professional editor. Is she interested in what could improve the story or argument, the exercises or characters, the activities or dialog? You can make a list of gentle suggestions. But I don’t advise going into it without clarifying with the author what would be most helpful.

The most delicate issue is around encouragement. Each of us has a right to use our ability with words and ideas to express ourselves. Writing is a wonderful exercise in self-expression and many stories deserve to be recorded and told for the sake of family and friends. But not every story is well enough crafted to make it independently in the world. There’s no harm in suggesting that the author might benefit from a workshop in fiction writing or a tutorial with someone successful. Craft and skill can always be improved.

Most of us, new in the game or old-times, want our readers to think this is terrific, fabulous, sure to hit the NY Times bestseller list. If you can’t say that, then focus on the positive encouragement you can give—“you really captured the description of a ranch house in the 1970s” or “I loved the character of the little boy; you really seemed to get inside him” and then add, “I’d love to see you bring the rest of the book up to that level of intensity/detail/completion.”

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