Here’s a topic that keeps coming up in my writing circles: A friend has asked you to read their book. They want some writing feedback. You agree, because, why wouldn’t you? Writers Help One Another. You want to pay forward all the amazing help you’ve received from other writers over the years, and here’s your chance. You open the document and your heart sinks.
Your friend’s book is a clunker.
Now what? You know from painful personal experience how much it hurts when others dismiss your writing. How can you do that to your friend? What if they decide never to write again and it’s all your fault? Maybe you have an inkling that your friend isn’t all that good at taking criticism, and you just don’t want the drama. What have you got yourself into and how can you get out without hurt feelings on all sides?
You could force yourself to read the book and spend ages giving painfully “constructive” feedback possibly ruining your friendship. After all, you promised you would do it, and you have to be professional and honest, right? Or do you go down the tried and tested path of denial and avoidance. Never bring up the topic again and hope your friend will forget they asked you to read their book. Because that works every time.
It’s time to take a step back to look at what exactly it is that you agreed to do. By giving writing feedback to a friend, you are blurring the lines between that friendship and your professional life as a writer/editor.
Hold on! Did you wince at that “professional”? You might want to think about that reaction but that’s a whole other topic for a different article. For the moment, let’s just go with writing being something you care about, and care about doing well, and that boils down to being professional about it.
There is a difference between reading for pleasure and reading critically to give writing feedback. Your friend is not saying “Hey, here’s a book I read, I’d like you to read it as well so we can enjoy it together.” They are asking you to enter into a professional relationship. That is true even if no money is exchanged. It’s true even if you feel really uncomfortable in thinking of yourself as a professional writer because you Are Not Good Enough Yet.
Your friend is your client.
When you tell them how you think they can improve their book, you’ll be using the skills and experience you’ve gained as a writer and a reader. This will only be worth doing if you both are clear about your roles.
What is your friend expecting you to do? What exactly can you offer in return? What are your responsibilities as an editor / beta reader / critique partner or whatever label you prefer? And (this one often gets missed out) what are your friend’s responsibilities as a client?
You don’t need to draw up and sign any contracts (although, if money is involved, this might not be a bad idea) but you make sure that you both know what you are getting into. Assumptions are dangerous things.
Now, giving and receiving constructive feedback is a big topic. Make sure you know how to give constructive feedback. Your friend might very well be hurt by you pointing out the flaws in their work. That’s ok and normal. But will they be able to handle their emotions, or will they lash out at you?
You might want to share some blog posts or articles to prepare them for this process. And if you suspect that they won’t be able to handle even the most gentle and constructive critique, don’t agree to read their work. You are not their therapist.
Make sure your friend understands that while you’ll be supportive and constructive, you will be giving them criticism and not validation. You’re going to be telling them how you think the book could be improved. That means pointing out the flaws.
That being said, you might be an expert editor with a black belt in constructive criticism but if you genuinely don’t like a book you are not the right person to give feedback on it.
State, upfront, that if you find, after the first chapter (or the first page, to be honest) that the book is Not For You, you will back out of the project and let your friend find somebody else who can help them.
“Thanks for asking me to read your book. Thing is, I can’t tell yet whether this is a project I can help you with. Your book might not be ready for feedback yet, or it might just not be my kind of thing. I’ll read the first chapter and get back to you.”
Set a Timeline
Agree to a reasonable deadline by which you will give feedback. Set an actual date. It’s not fair to your friend to be left hanging without having a polite way to ask “so when will you let me know what you think?”
Follow the usual rules a professional person would in managing that timeline. If life happens and you can’t make the deadline, let your friend know, and agree to a new deadline.
Manage Your Workload
How much of the book are you willing or able to read? Don’t sign up for an unknown amount of work. Limit your commitment to one chapter, or even a synopsis. Once you’ve got a feel for the project, you can decide how to go on from there.
How many stages of feedback can you commit to? Don’t get locked into an infinite loop of “OK I applied your suggestions now read draft 78 version 2 what do you think?”
You don’t have to spell all this out upfront, but be ready to set your boundaries with a polite “Sorry that’s all I have time for at the moment, good luck with the rest of the project”.
Avoid becoming a crutch for your friend’s self-confidence. Be ready to say “This is your story, and you get to decide what is best for it. Do what you think is right.”
Agree on the Feedback Type
If this is a first draft by a newby writer they won’t need you to fix their grammar and typos. Advice on plotting, characterisation, story structure, the important big picture things are much more valuable in the early stages of a project. Let your friend know what you’ll be focusing on.
Consider what form the feedback will take. Will you have a conversation over coffee and that’s it, or will you provide focused, line-by-line, written feedback? Think carefully about how much time you are able to put into this project, and also the impact a wall of critical text or a sea of red ink might have on your friend, no matter how constructively you phrase things.
Here’s a tip: If you plan to give your feedback as a conversation, don’t do it sitting down facing one another. Go for a walk, so you’ll be next to one another. That gives everyone space to manage their reactions and feels a lot less confrontational.
Back Out if You Need To
It’s very possible that despite everything, you still find yourself unable to commit to whatever you agreed to. If so, don’t put it off. Let them know you can’t do it. Just tell them. Don’t go into all the painful reasons why the book sucks, just say that you are not the right reader for this project, or that the manuscript is not ready for the kind of feedback you can provide. Don’t delay, that just makes it worse. Rip that band aid off.
You can encourage your friend to join online critique groups like Critique Circle. Point out that a writer can learn just as much (or more!) by critiquing other people’s writing. It’s true!