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Honesty: Still the best policy. Probably.

21 March 2013


I’ve mentioned before that I don’t tend to let bad reviews get to me. I’ve gotten my share of one-stars on Goodreads and Amazon and the like, and none of them sent me charging into the garage to fashion an electrical cord into a noose and swing it over a rafter (partially because my garage doesn’t have exposed rafters).

Reviews on a published work are one thing… but what do you do when a friend or relative passes you a manuscript to read and wants your feedback on it?

Worse yet, what if said manuscript is awful? Or you know that the person who gave it to you isn’t great at taking criticism? Or if you got it with the distinct feeling that the author just wants someone to tell him that it’s great (even if it isn’t)?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I hand off a manuscript to someone, I want honest feedback. If there are problems in the book, I want to know about them — especially because I probably intend to inflict this work on a broader audience at some point, and better to hear now that the story logic makes no sense, or that a certain character is completely unbelievable and unnecessary. Getting actual feedback is the whole reason I let people read something before I do anything else with it.

So in my case, I send these things out with the intention of getting criticism back. I can decide for myself on the validity of said criticism, but if there’s even a hint of an issue, I want to know about it. And when people give me stuff to read (it happens a lot, which is a peril of surrounding yourself with writery-type people), I tend to do the same for them.

Now, there is, of course, a way to criticize someone’s work without being a complete bag of dicks about it, and I try to go that route. I find the “Comment” feature in Word to be of great assistance there, because I never try to go through and make edits to someone’s work with Tracked Changes. I just leave a little note saying what didn’t work for me in the paragraph, and I try to do so as nicely as possible without being feeble and overly complimentary. I also do tend to put notes in places where the story does work well for me, or call out a passage or bit of dialogue I thought was clever, just so the author doesn’t open a .doc full of bad news.

And if it’s all-out horrible (rarely the case, but it has happened), it can be hard to find anything to say. One thing I’ve noticed — all of the bad stuff I’ve been asked to read has come to me incomplete, where it’s just the beginning of the story or a couple of chapters. Then, I generally tell the person who sent it to finish the thing, and I’ll be happy to look at it then (which is my standard response for all unfinished work I get, regardless of quality). Not one of them has, as of yet, sent me back a finished story. I try to be encouraging when I say “finish it,” but it’s entirely possible I come off as that aforementioned bag of dicks.

When someone sends a story to you, how do you find yourself commenting on it or giving criticism? And do you send your own stuff out to beta readers?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 March 2013 1252

    I cherrish it. I am still perfecting the story I have once passed onto you all those moons ago. Getting feedback is important if one wants to grow as a writer, no matter how “bad” said feedback is.

    The few times I was given a story to beta I endeavoured to use humour in my feedback.

    • 21 March 2013 1254

      I still regret not being able to give that story as much time as I would have liked — you caught me on a deadline crunch. If you ever want to re-send it (or anything else), please do.

  2. 21 March 2013 1253

    The “Finish it” thing goes a looooooooong way. I tell decent writers I know that I’ll read the first bit of something because I know that first bit shapes a lot of what follows. I’ll do that because I know if you say, “Hey, can you just see if this works?” that what I say will be considered and that you will finish it.

    I’ve read far too many things that just died along the way because someone stopped writing, and that’s a waste of my time. So unless you are a friend who finishes things, I won’t look at anything until it’s done. Most people who want feedback from me never finish, so…I never have to read their stuff.

    I used to joke that the main reason to have an agent would be to tell all the people who want you to read their stuff, “Sorry, my agent won’t let me read stuff for legal reasons.”

    When I read something, I know the person, so…I know their intentions (usually). So it’s a lot of, “Loved this!” and, “This is why I respect what you do as a writer,” and not so much, “You must fix that problem this way!” It’s more, “This whole section seems to…not be doing what I think you intended, and you probably know that. You wanna talk it through, buy me a cup of coffee and I’ll listen and knock ideas around if you need that.” Sometimes it’s, “Okay, it seems like you’re deliberately trying to hold something back — you might want to just come out and say it instead of a trick reveal, or not make it seem so…whatever it is that makes me feel like you’re manipulating the reader for the sake of a clever writer trick.” It’s almost always with reason and with the offer to help when I single a section out. The two examples, in fact, are very similar to feedback I recently gave to a friend. That, or catching those things like, “You said the car was blue back there, and now it’s green.”

    All those kinds of things are the things I like having pointed out to me when I hand something off for a read. A lot of times, I just want to see if several people feel a certain part can be made stronger, or…am I just obsessing about some little thing that doesn’t matter. But I definitely want feedback — and not, “Well, here’s what I’d do…”

    I will never do that to another writer unless they say, “What would you do, here,” if they are very stuck. It’s generally insulting, and shows that you’re really not a great reader when you try turning somebody’s work into a thing of your own.

    Shawn, I think you should set the 47 Echo books in the Midwest and make Nick a high school lacrosse star. Just a brooding and misunderstood guy who wants to own a store that sells nothing but Chewbacca figurines because Nick is really a vampire. It’s up to you what that has to do with Chewbacca figures. Oh yeah, and he’s in a band called 47 Echo…with a werewolf, an angel, and a guy who eats rubber bands and fights with an Oreo gun. (Go to YouTube and look for “Slingshot Channel Oreo Separation Pump Gun” and it will all make sense. Well, except for the eating rubber bands part.)

    I’ll stop babbling now and give you your comments section back…

    • 21 March 2013 1346

      Yeah, I never try to restate anything in my own voice or rewrite what the author has written. It comes across to me as patronizing and insulting. I rarely even offer suggestions, and I make sure the author knows he/she can tell me to fuck directly off if they want.

      Mainly, I try to point out what I thought did or didn’t work, put in a bit of humor, and remind folks that I’m not the boss of them, nor am I their editor.

      • 22 March 2013 1045

        Oooh, I haaaaaaaate when a “correction” is just someone restating something I’ve written in their own style.

  3. 21 March 2013 1501

    When I’m asked by someone to look at something that’s … how shall I put this … completely God-awful, my feedback is usually pretty simple. First I list the three things I liked (which could be as simple as, “I thought this character was cool”), and then I list the three biggest things they need to change (which could be anything from getting the tenses to match up to re-thinking the entire plot because it makes no sense).

    And I definitely use beta readers, although my go-to for all writing projects is my mother. She has absolutely no problem bashing me over the head with how bad something I wrote is. I tend to resent her for this, but I always get over it after I take a hard look at the work in question and realize that she’s right. Once she manages to get through something without cringing repeatedly, other eyes are ready to see it.

    • 21 March 2013 1545

      I’ve got a few good beta readers who have no problem calling BS on something, because they know it won’t upset me.

      Now, that wasn’t always the case when I was younger… resentment abounds in those days.

  4. 22 March 2013 1041

    I’ve had enough bad experiences that before I even agree to open a file, I tell people flat-out “I am going to forget that I like you when I read this. You will only get ego-stroking if I genuinely like it, and if I don’t like it, you will be given reasons.” Some people are cook with this, since they actually want to improve their work and/or see if their idea is appealing to others. I lost my willingness to give a lot of benefit of the doubt after someone sent me a 250,000 word first draft, swearing that he wanted honest feedback, only to have him rip me a new one when I pointed out things that weren’t working (like places where it got really confusing until you realized that a flashback had started 10 pages ago, but there was no indication of the time shift). He insisted that every word had been carefully chosen and that HE was doing ME a favor by letting me read the next Great American Novel before it was snapped up by a publisher.
    All of that said, I try to do it a bit like Michelle says above – there has to be SOMETHING I like about it, even if it it’s no more than “hey! You finished an entire first draft of a novel! Level up!”

    Of course, I also have to ask “do you just want my feedback as a reader, or are you expecting thorough proofreading with corrections” when I get the idea that what someone REALLY wants is my services as an editor, but they don’t want to actually ask for that because I might point out that this is a thing I get paid to do.

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