It’s the end of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and countless participants will be eager to share their stories with their friends. Here are some helpful tips for reading your friend’s writing and offering them critique that won’t break their spirit (because sometimes our spirits are as brittle as aged balsa wood).
Imagine a place in your house sacred to you. Maybe not sacred, but one you’d be embarrassed or nervous for others to see. Then, imagine opening the door and inviting people to go through it and make comments. Imagine you’ve created something personal. You’ve reached into your soul, cut a sliver off, and presented it to the world for judgment. That sliver of your soul is fragile. It holds dreams, hours of dedication and time, found and lost ideas–all held together by hope and passion. Imagine the most personal thing you know. The darkest secret. The deepest truth. Now, imagine revealing it to your friends and asking for their thoughts.
That is what it feels like to be a writer.
So, what can you do when your friend asks you to read their work? The answer can vary. How far along are they in drafting? How much critique are they used to? Where are they at in their writing career?
The New Draft and the New Writer
If the writer is new to writing or has shared little of their work and asks you to read a first draft pass, don’t make strict judgement calls on grammar, plot, or characters. You wouldn’t tell a mother her newborn baby looked like a giant wrinkled prune (even if it did), so don’t tell that writer her fledgling novel is messy and imperfect. They know it. If they don’t… Well, they will eventually. It’s new, unpolished, and raw.
If you notice something in the draft which truly bothers you, offer a constructive way of fixing it. I like to call these “Excited What-ifs”.
Example: Oh! I like X character, but what if he did X instead of X? That would be cool!
Be engaged, be happy for the writer, and offer suggestions in a positive tone. They might not take the suggestion, but it may inspire them to change the problem in a different way.
Be encouraging. Being a writer comes with a truck-load of self-doubt. A lot of little voices in our heads tell us to give up or that we aren’t any good. Encourage them to keep going. Be sure to tell them what you liked about their writing. In my personal experience, the best encouragement comes when a friend asks for more, when they seem genuinely excited to see where the story will go, or desire to learn more about the characters.
For the Seasoned Unpublished Writer
Many people love writing or believe they have a book inside them. Many of those people have written scores of material and haven’t been published. These people still enjoy sharing their work with others, even if they haven’t taken steps to traditionally or self-publish or have and have been rejected.
If asked to review a manuscript, remember to offer critique in an encouraging, positive manner. Tell them when you didn’t feel something worked, tell them why it felt off to you, and what you think you wanted from the situation or character. If the main character isn’t jiving with you, tell them why. It will help them understand what needs fixing to make the specific character more enjoyable–especially if it’s the main character.
Try to remember to balance your negative feedback with positive reinforcement. For every negative try to offer a positive. This will help the writer not feel completely deflated after receiving your feedback. Be sure to tell them what you liked (or loved). This gets them excited. If they felt deflated by a comment you made earlier, a positive note afterwards will reinvigorated them.
For me, personally, I have a go-to friend I’ve been writing “for” for over 12 years. I know how she’ll read my work. I know she’ll be truthful with me, but she also has a way of framing critique in a way that helps me understand the problem without feeling deflated. She balances positive and negative feedback in a way that keeps me from running away from the problems I need to fix and, instead, helps me embrace them. She’ll even help me brainstorm how to fix it!
When she reads my writing, she prints it out. She marks where she feels there is a problem, but also leaves scores of “squees”, hearts, and highlights where she gets excited or emotional about what is happening the story. In the sections that don’t work, she explains why and makes a suggestion on how it can be improved. If I’ve gone several pages where she highlights serious flaws I never noticed, those small bursts of excitement help calm that swelling sense of dread that I’ve written something awful.
For the Soon-to-Be Published
So your friend worked years on their book. It has gone through multiple drafts, revisions, or complete and utter re-writes. They are ready to publish it, whether submitting to an agent, traditional publisher, or self-publishing. They want your opinion to help fine-tune it. For your friend, the author, it is finally time for them to let the world see their work. This is when you can shed some of the padding on your gloves, so to speak, and be a little more direct with your critique.
When publishing The Living God, I went through several rounds of editing. Three developmental edits and two copy edits. In retrospect, my developmental edit didn’t catch ALL the things I wish it had. Neither did the beta reading from both friends and strangers. Things like this happen. But, let me tell you how the process went.
My first round of beta reading went out to my friends, the go-to people who usually read my work. They didn’t offer any criticism, then again they had read three different versions of this story, so it is on me for not getting fresh eyes to look it over. Next, it went through one round of developmental editing at Inkshares, my publisher. A lot of the suggestions were things that would have fundamentally changed my story, concessions I wasn’t really willing to make. I’m thankful I didn’t, because these things I chose to keep were what people love about the novel. What some didn’t like revolved around the pacing, which my developmental edit should have caught, but unfortunately didn’t. It went through another developmental edit, where we refined the story after the initial first round changes, and then it was passed off to a fellow author for a read and comment. Her suggestions really made me dive back into the book and remove chapters, add contexts, tighten up the over-all story. It lost 10,000+ words, but again, the pacing was still off and no one really picked up on it. The dialogue is also clunky, and if your writer friend has read her book 10+ times as I have, things like that get completely lost. You memorize the book until you are no longer really “reading” it.
If your writer friend is in this stage, this is a frightening time for them. They finished their book and want to show it to the world. It’s honestly time to take the gloves off. Your friend is about to pass their work off to the world, and the world isn’t nice. The world has pretty harsh hot-takes on content these days, especially books.
Always try to add a positive aspect to your feedback, but don’t hesitate letting them know when things aren’t working, when a character is annoying, when the dialogue is childish or clunky, when they have created an offensive stereotype or adopted a overused trope. Let them know when things get boring, or when plot points move too fast.
Be honest. Be real. But don’t be cruel. While your feedback is meant to better and enrich the story, you don’t want it to lead to them shelving it entirely for good. Balance your feedback with positive encouragement.
If you need help understanding what you should be looking for while reading your friend’s work, check out these questions from killzoneblog.com: 15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions.
Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?
Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?
Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?
Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?
Have you read your friends work before? What are some strategies you’ve used to help improve their work? What is your process? How have you kept them motivated when they felt like giving up? Let me know in the comments!