In this article, I’m going to explain how you can read your friend’s writing, offer critique, all without breaking their spirit.
Imagine a place in your house that is sacred to you. Maybe not even sacred, but one you’d be embarrassed or nervous for others to see. Then, imagine that one day you just opened the door and invited them to root through it and make comments.
Imagine you’ve created something personal. You’ve reached into your soul, cut a sliver of it off, and presented it to others for judgment. That sliver of your soul is fragile. It holds dreams, hours of dedication and time, found and lost ideas, and it is all held together by hope.
Imagine the most personal thing you know, the darkest secret, the deepest truth, and imagine revealing it to your friend for comment. That is what it feels like to have another read your work.
So, what can you do when your friend asks you to read their work? The answer can vary depending on what stage the draft is in and how far along that person is in their writing career.
The New Draft and the New Writer
If your friend only just started working on a project and it is in the very first stages of draft, don’t make strict judgment 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 is new, unpolished, and raw.
If you notice something in the draft that 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 that suggestion, but it may inspire them to change the problem in a different way.
If your friend just started writing, and this is also their first draft, be encouraging to them. There is a lot of self-doubt in being a writer. A lot of little voices in our heads tell us to give up and 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 and when they seem genuinely excited to see where the story will go or to learn more about the characters.
For the Seasoned Unpublished Writer
There are so many people who love writing, who have written scores of material and have yet to publish it. They still enjoy people reading their work, even if they haven’t taken a step towards publication, or if they have taken it and have been rejected.
If you are asked to read a manuscript they have worked on for a while, offer critique in a gentle way. 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 that and why. It will help them understand what needs to be fixed in order to make that character more enjoyable.
Again, be sure to let them know what you liked (or loved) about what you read. This gets them excited. If they felt deflated by a comment you made earlier, they will be reinvigorated when they hear about the things you liked.
I have a go-to lady, a friend I’ve been writing “for” for the last 12 or so years. I know how she’ll read my work. I know she’ll be truthful with it, but also say it in a way that is kind and one that won’t deflate me or make me abandon my idea. It will help me realize the flaw that needs fixing, without making me wish to run from it. She’ll even help me brainstorm how to fix it!
When she reads my writing, she prints it and marks where she feels there is a problem. She explains why it doesn’t feel right to her and makes a suggestion on how it can be improved. She also circles or draws hearts with words like “Wheee!” when she finds something she really likes. If I’ve gone a couple of 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 more than one person look at it, to reach outside their comfort zone and ask people they might not normally ask to review their work. That might be you. For the writer, this is akin to stepping naked in front of strangers, even if they know those “strangers” very well.
I recently did this with my current novel, The Living God. It is soon-to-be published by Inkshares and is in its last round of beta reading. It went through the first round with my go-to friend and a few others who, while they didn’t offer suggestions on things that needed to be fixed, didn’t say it was awful either (Win?).
In the second round, I passed it off to people who have never read my writing before. They are interested in the genre, but they have never read anything by me. They haven’t even heard me speak about my book or my characters at any length. I’ve stepped out naked and I’m waiting patiently for comments.
Speaking from personal experience, this moment is one of the most frightening as a writer. Not because I’m revealing my work to “strangers”, that is about to happen regardless. I’m getting it published after all. Soon hundreds of strangers will be reading it and making comments. It is frightening because it is finished, aside from the adjustments that need to be made based on their feedback. It is finished, I’ve written it, and while I’ve enjoyed writing it and I’ve enjoyed reading it, I’m not entirely sure it’s… good.
In this stage of the writing and writer’s life, they’ve surpassed needing to be encouraged. That isn’t to say they don’t need encouragement, they do. But, they need more. They need more than suggestions put gently. They need truth.
As I said, my book is finished. I enjoyed writing it and reading it, but I have no idea if it is actually good. Rather than wait for the poor reviews to pour in, I want to fix the problems that might be there. Your friend has reached that same stage. They are delicate but determined.
I had no idea what to ask of my friends who were doing this final and vital beta reading of my work. I had to Google what I wanted from them. I’d never reached this stage in my writing before, and I had no idea what I needed to ask of them that would help improve the work.
I found this handy article on killzoneblog.com: 15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions.
Consider answering these questions when reading your friend’s work in this stage:
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?
I’m still waiting patiently for the comments, and hope to get them and turn the book into the publisher by the end of May.
If the book needs work, tell them. But, don’t let them lose hope. It needs work, yes, but explain to them that it isn’t a lost cause. Encourage them to keep going, to fix the problems, and make it the best that it can be.
This might be hard for them to hear, especially after they’ve worked for 10 years on a project like I have. But, if it is a story with telling, and hundreds of people will read it, it is worth telling right. Help them make it right, and be the positivity they need to find the courage to do so.
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!