One of the most uncomfortable parts of my job as a college professor was the need to grade the writing of my students. Writing is a creative act, no matter the content, and to put a letter grade on someone's efforts is painful for the giver and the receiver, especially when the student is doing the best she can and is a mediocre thinker and writer. Does she get an A because she's at the top of her game or a C because she's average in the bigger range of the game?
As a student myself, I shied away from traditional art classes as I couldn't bear to have my creative efforts compared and categorized against a standard set by someone else. It was too painful.
So in the writing groups I attend and lead, we focu on helpful suggestions, usually centering the conversation on two questions: What did you want to hear more about? Where did you get lost or stop listening/reading?
These questions are quite benign and fall into the category of support rather than critique. Lots of writers swear by critique groups but my own experience of them has been as negative as art classes: there was little consideration for feelings and a lot of desire to have the product change to fit the critiquer's style, not the writer's.
So what does one do when a friend or writing colleague asks you to read her manuscript? Last week my friend Pam did just that. Pam and I have known each other a couple of years but in the last few months we've grown closer, especially since we went on a writing retreat together. She wrote a mystery for national novel writing month last year and has been revising it and wanted a couple of outside readers. I've heard parts of her book and thought I'd like to read the rest. I didn't really think too much about the comments part of it.
Friday we met to talk about it. First,I hadn't prepared anything and I think that was a bad idea. My comments were all over the place, not organized at all, and I sorted out the reason behind some of my hesitancies about her plot out loud while she listened. Frankly, I only knew I had the hesitancies. I wasn't sure what they were about until we started talking.
Second, I read her book but I didn't study it. I'd mention things that seemed missing but she swore they were in there. Maybe so. I don't know the book nearly as well as she does. And I hadn't thought about that problem until just now.
Third, my role as reader was unclear. Was I giving her my professional advice as an editor? My feedback as a casual reader? My support as a friend? All that felt awkward and dicey to me. And even if I'd set that out clearly, I'm not sure I could keep that straight.
I don't think Pam and I did any harm to our friendship but I wonder if the conversation was unsatisfying to her. I also wonder how she felt.
As an editor, I know to ask my clients what kind of feedback they are looking for and I don't accept vague answers. I think that's probably a good idea with friend writers as well: find out what is wanted and don't accept vague answers. If the writer isn't sure what he wants, it may be best to pass on the opportunity.
More thoughts on this next post..