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  • Guide to Literary Agents

How to Critique Friends’ Writing

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, Revision, What's New.

When friends know that we’re writers, they sometimes ask us to read and critique their works-in-progress. Handling these requests can be awkward. As friends, we want to help; as writers, we want to protect our own writing time. If we offer professional critiquing services, as many of us do, we also want to protect our earning time. Here I offer several perspectives, from rather delicate situations, on how to handle friends’ requests.

When You’re a Fellow Writer:

Pearl told me a truly horrendous story about helping a colleague. She had met Lydia (names changed for protection) in a local coffee shop. They bonded over a mutual devotion to mystery novels, respective blocks, and laptop frustrations, and started meeting monthly…

(What to write in the BIO section of your queries.)

 

         

Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor,
Noelle Sterne publishes fiction and nonfiction in print and online venues.
Her current column in Coffeehouse for Writers is titled “Bloom Where
You’re Writing.” With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle for over
28 years has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations.
Her book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity
Books), uses examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life
to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong
yearnings. She is completing a practical -psychological-spiritual handbook
to support doctoral candidates: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation:
Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles.
Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.

 

 

Lydia asked Pearl to critique her mystery novel in progress, and Pearl plunged in, producing several pages of constructive notes in great detail. Pearl then gave Lydia parts of her own mystery novel. Lydia responded with a single page high compliments and general comments.

Shortly, Lydia sent Pearl a new chapter. When Pearl read it, she gasped: Lydia had copied, almost verbatim, an entire section of Pearl’s manuscript, from introduction to setting to the protagonist’s confrontation with the main suspect, and even mimicked Pearl’s protagonist penchant for wearing spike heels chasing criminals.

Pearl didn’t know which hurt more—Lydia’s actual aping or her betrayal of trust. This was supposed to be a writing friend, a colleague, a partner!

(How do you use online social-media websites to sell books and market yourself?)

I asked Pearl what she did. “Well,” she said, “I approached her gently, telling her I didn’t want to offend her or discourage her writing. Then I went through both our chapters and highlighted passages to show her the similarities that were too similar to be coincidence.”

How did Lydia react? To Pearl’s shock, she defended herself profusely, with no acknowledgment of the similarities or apology. Needless to say, they stopped meeting.

Pearl told me she was now “totally off” writing friends. Lesson? The secret of critiquing for friends is reciprocity. Perhaps Pearl should have said something to Lydia immediately after her first cursory response to Pearl’s work, in contrast to Pearl’s detailed notes of Lydia’s.

For successful critiquing with fellow writers, exchanges of equally-detailed and serious critiques should satisfy both partners. If your friend isn’t an experienced writer, decide what you value in exchange for your critique—babysitting while you write, taking care of three errands while you write, putting up shelves in your garage while you write, researching for your historical novel while you write? Clarify your mutual understanding and define your terms.

When You’re Also a Professional Editor:

If you editor and critique as part of your profession, when friends ask you for a critique, it can get tricky. As a friend, I feel I shouldn’t charge—I’m a friend. My friend may feel affronted at paying—he’s a friend. This was my dilemma with my friend Brad, who asked me to critique his memoir.

Brad’s Book. In many email exchanges, Brad and I had talked about the book he wanted to write, and I encouraged him through elated periods of massive productivity and reassured him through frozen weeks of chain-cable movies. Finally, after about eight months, he announced he’d finished and asked for my comments on his 250-page manuscript. “I want to know what you really think.”

I wrestled with the internal friend-and-money debate and finally decided how to approach Brad’s request. Because of our long and satisfying friendship, I’d give him the gift of a critique. But I made this decision only after asking myself certain uncomfortable questions: Would I resent doing it? Wished I’d charged, even nominally? Should have refused in the first place? When I could answer these questions with hearty “Nos,” and felt at absolute peace with my decision, I plunged in.

My Approach. The only way my critique would be honest, I realized, was to approach Brad’s book fully, as I would the work of any client. So, with page and paragraph numbers, I noted down every passage I saw that could be improved, developed, extended, streamlined; every sentence with too many adjectives or not enough description. I recorded repetitions and redundancies, clichés and inanities, too-obvious and obscure statements, and those that veered off to another planet.

I noted the good stuff, too, where as the reader you felt really there. Finally, I organized my notes into sections of praise and challenges, couching my critiques tactfully but to the point. I felt I’d been true to my professional opinion and had met Brad’s request to tell him what I really thought.

But despite his plea for honesty, I admit to some trepidation about how he would take it all. After all, he had invested himself to the tune of 250 pages without asking for an opinion. Holding my breath, I sent off my letter.

Brad’s Response. Two days later, Brad called. “Finally! Criticism I can use!”

I laughed with relief. He was a writer, after all.

He went on, “Everyone else I showed the book to said, ‘It’s nice, it’s cute, it’s funny.’ ” Vanilla vagaries, he called them. “But I knew it had to have flaws. You helped me see them. Now I’ll jump into the editing.” He added, “And I’m continuing the memoir with the next twenty years.”

“Go, baby!” I said.

(Find a list of memoir literary agents.)

Brad’s latest note proudly reported he was on page 328 and still covering his early married life. He didn’t ask me to read or critique any of his new work, but he vowed he would edit more closely and reread my comments.

Alternatives for Handling Critique Requests

Pearl’s experience with Lydia and mine with Brad illustrate two approaches to critiquing for friends. We want to be a good guy and a supportive friend. But we must also protect our writing and earning time. So, when friends ask you for critiques, what do you do? Here are four alternatives:

1. Decline diplomatically. You could say, “I’m not the right person to review this.It’s out of my field of expertise (or genre).” Or, “I couldn’t do it justice. I want to be fair to you to give it an attentive reading, but I just don’t have the time.” These responses may be fibs. But consider them gentle, even tactful ones.

2. Approach the request as a business one. As a professional, you could say to your friend that you’ll be giving this project the same “professional attention” and time you would to any other. Quote your fee dispassionately. Your friend, of course, has the option of declining.

3. Barter. As I suggested above, agree in advance on what you’ll exchange for your critique. If it’s mutual critiques, decide together on the depth and extent of detail. If it’s other things, make sure that what your friend provides has value to you.

4. As I did with Brad, give the critique as a gift. But you must feel completely at ease about giving your concentrated attention and time and telling the critiquing truth. Otherwise, you may resent the time you spend and grouse internally that you should have been paid, at the peril of the friendship. Let your friend know that you rarely do this and you’re giving the gift unreservedly because of your treasured friendship.

* * * * * *

If friends have asked you to critique their work, your reactions in vacillations and misgivings are natural. For the right response, talk to yourself honestly—and listen—about how to handle the request. You can make the choice that’s best for you and at the same time honor your friendship, your critiquing abilities, your professionalism, and your friend’s hard work.

 


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