If you write, it’s inevitable that your friends, co-workers and possibly your piano teacher are going to ask you to read their manuscript.
Be warned. This is icky territory.
If the manuscript is terrible, do you tell them? Or do you watch as they get rejected by every publisher possible and give them empty words of sympathy? If the manuscript is decent, what do they expect from you and what are you willing to give?
From making my own mistakes, I’ve come up with four basic rules for these situations:
1. Only agree to read someone’s work if you really want to
How many times has someone told you their book is ‘about greed’ or a story that sounds exactly like their recent divorce? Many of the people approaching you for advice will have no idea about the industry and even less understanding of how to write a decent book.
I rarely agree to read someone’s work outside of my critique group. Instead I direct these people to join a writer’s group and start reading industry magazines. Occasionally, I’m approached by someone I care about with a solid idea and I will go through the following three steps.
2. Tell them a time frame
I’m a writer too and I feel completely justified spending the majority of my spare time working on my craft, rather than yours. Just because the weekend’s coming up doesn’t mean that I spent it reading your work.
On the other hand, I have forgotten this rule before and had friends ask me nervously if I hated their writing because a week had passed without my comment. My bad. I know what it’s like on both sides, which is why I’d prefer to tell you upfront that if I can’t begin reading it for another two weeks.
3. Ask them exactly what they want from you and confirm it
This is the uber-step of politeness. I need to know if I’m reading this and telling you nice things or if I’m reading this and tearing it apart for your own good.
I’ve been in the same critiquing group for a while now and we’ve become very honest. However, your friend may never have been critiqued before and this kind of treatment would send them to a psych ward for a month. If someone has asked for my absolute honest opinion, I’ll assess where they’re up to in their writing and give them a few gentle pointers. But there is no sense in railing on about dialogue if the story has no structure or logic.
4. Deliver what you promised and wish them well
I like doing this by email. It’s not just a cop out on my behalf; it’s for their own good. I was shaking with fear the first time I read a critique of my work. I believe any beginner to this process should digest their critiques in privacy (perhaps with chocolate cake and a bottle of merlot).
And the wish them well part? I mean it, whether the story should see the light of day or not. Writing isn’t easy and anyone who has gotten to this stage has figured that out. Anyone who dares to write again after their first critique is a brave soul indeed.