From the mail bag: K.W. asks: What do you say when someone has asked you to read something they’ve written, and it really stinks? I don’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings, because I know she spent a lot of time on it. She thinks the story she’s written is ready to be sent off to a publisher. I think it’s ready to be sent to the circular file. Help! I’m sure you must get this a lot.

As a matter of fact… :) I do get this a lot. I’ve had many friends, and even more strangers, ask me to read their latest manuscript. I try to remember back to the early days of my writing career, and how hard it was to get any kind of useful feedback. We all have to start somewhere. But, typically, because friends are naturally going to be afraid of hurting friends’ feelings, they’re usually not the best ones to ask (ditto family members)–unless they’re in the writing business, and then ask away.

For future reference, you could simply say that you wouldn’t make a good reader, because you’re too close, or it’s not a genre that you usually read. But since that’s not going to get you out of this bind, try to remember that your friend did invest a lot of her time.

When someone asks me to look at their work, the three things I check for are the arc of the story and whether they’ve carried it through; the character development and whether it’s consistent and rings true; and the pacing, for places where the story starts to drag, or, conversely, skips ahead too quickly. I’m not going to bother with grammar, spelling, or formatting, though if these technical aspects are horrendous, I’ll suggest they invest in some good grammar and formatting books. I might even suggest they take a writing course, or attend some writers’ conferences, where they could get professional feedback and even make potential contacts for agents or editors.

Often, first drafts aren’t very good. Professional writers take that as a given, use the first draft to get the bones of the story together, and then go back and rewrite to flesh the whole thing out–and they keep rewriting until they have a story that sings. It’s common for new writers who’ve completed a first draft to think they have a finished product. It’s our job as friends and editors to gently let the friend know that, while this is a great effort, there’s more work to be done. Then try to find a way to make helpful suggestions. First try to find something, anything, about the story you like–even if it’s just that she did a great job formatting and typing. Then try to find a way to frame your suggestions in the positive: “Your main character has some interesting qualities, and I think she’d be even cooler if…,” etc.

Remember, just because this version your friend gave you stinks, that doesn’t mean that with some good advice she can’t go back and make it a lot better. If she’s looking for someone to tell her how great she is, she’ll probably ignore what you have say. If she’s serious about getting better as a writer, she’ll thank you for your suggestions and get back to work. Either way, you’ll have done your part as her friend, and you can walk away with a clear conscience.