What do you do when a friend asks you to look at something he wrote?
November 2, 2012
Run for the hills, right?
That is obviously the smart thing. Take the coward’s way out. Make excuses. Remember that your mother just died. Tell him your doctor told you not to do it. Tell him the house painters are coming next year.
But, if you decide to walk the gang plank, to look at his work, what is the best way to go at it?
When it comes right down to it, honesty is the best policy.
That doesn’t mean you have to be cruel about it, but you should be direct.
If a person really wants to improve as a writer, he must receive honest criticism of his work from someone that has experience writing. If all he wants is “That’s great,” he isn’t looking to get better.
The role of critic gets harder the more experienced the writer becomes.
There are a number of reasons for this. If a person is a true novice, she probably will make some obvious mistakes that are easy to spot and address. The critic can point out these sophomore mistakes, bundle it with a charge to “keep going” and wait to see if the newbie takes his advice or just drops out of the process.
But an experienced writer may not take as kindly to criticism. The more we write, the more we tend to think we are getting better at it.
We may just be making the same mistakes over and over again.
I suppose the Indie revolution may add fuel to the fire. When an author has several self-published books and perhaps some pretty good sales, he may become set in his ways. He may dig his heels in and deflect any advice from anyone.
If that’s his MO, he shouldn’t have asked for your opinion in the first place. But having asked you to examine his work, he should be willing at least to consider your suggestions.
I have been fortunate in my writing life to have found two people who are great writers who also have been willing to provide input to me about my work. The first of these was Jory Sherman, a legendary author and poet masquerading as a novelist. Jory served as my coach for a couple of years. He nudged me to do better while encouraging me to continue.
The second person to serve as my writing mentor is my stablemate, Caleb Pirtle. Caleb has forgotten more about writing than most people ever learn. I refer to his criticism style as “gentle but direct.” That means he usually doesn’t cuss at me, although he probably feels like it.
Caleb, at my request, usually chimes in when I finish the draft of a manuscript and send it to him. Without exception, when I take to heart the glitches he points out in my writing and do revisions, I find that the passage works better and gets stronger.
Really that’s what writers should do for their friends. They should tell them things they would hope someone would tell them if the shoe were on the other foot.
We truly are all in this writing gig together.
So, the next time a friend asks you to read something he wrote, think about this blog.
And run for the hills.
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author who is still trying to figure out this writing gig.)