Imagine this. You just read a fellow writer’s work. Maybe this is a friend, a member of your writer’s group, a classmate. Whoever it is, you read their writing with the objective of giving them honest feedback.
One problem: you hated the piece you just read.
Okay, I know Mom always said hate is a strong word. But this is going to happen. Even if your fellow writers are very talented, you’re unlikely to enjoy their each and every work. Our preferences and interests don’t always line up with everyone else’s. At any rate, you’ve just read a piece you didn’t particularly care for. And now you’ve got to give feedback on it.
Now what? Should you tell your fellow writer the truth? That you think what they wrote just wasn’t very good? Or worse, that you thought it was plain bad?
You will almost certainly have these thoughts about other people’s writing. When you do, I strongly believe you should simply lie to your fellow writers.
As we all know, writing is a pain in the ass. It takes years to get good at, and even then there’s always something left to improve upon. It’s a process of drafts, revisions, meticulous editing, feedback collection, then repetition. Writing is hard. It requires a constant stream of dedication and positivity.
So when a reader reviews a written work in a preliminary stage and tells the author they hated it, such negative feedback can destroy the author’s confidence. It’s these kinds of comments that make writers quit on their projects, completely restructure their work, or say to themselves, “I guess I’ll never be a very good author.” There is, after all, such a thing as being too honest.
The basic gist: If our objective is to help a fellow writer get better at writing, sometimes it’s necessary to lie.
I’m not advocating an “It’s perfect!” approach, whereby authors simply pat each other on the back at every turn, pretending everything’s amazing and every page is publishable. This kind of attitude won’t help anyone achieve their potential. Rather, I’m advocating a balanced approach. If you can’t find anything you like about a particular piece, make something up. There are glimmers of success to be found in all writing, no matter how much we dislike it.
Also, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about writing in its preliminary stages here, not finished writing. If you read a published book and hate it, you’re certainly entitled to share your opinion. But a published book is finished, and therefore open to any kind of feedback, negative or otherwise. (Just try to be respectful.)
On the other hand, for unfinished manuscripts and the people working on them, one-star ratings are useless. In the nascent stages of development, writers need equal amounts of praise and constructive criticism. It helps us stay motivated and finish projects.
Yes, all comments on a work in progress should be constructive in nature. Simply saying, “I didn’t like it” does nothing to help a writer improve their work. The best readers offer solutions rather than only point out problems.
For example, imagine you just read a really bad manuscript. Here’s an example of some honest, yet constructive feedback you might provide:
I think this piece has a lot of potential. One place where I think you could concentrate additional time is on your protagonist. I don’t dislike her, but I don’t really like her, either. In this draft, she’s just sort of there. I have a very hard time connecting with her, I think because I don’t know enough about her. If you provide additional details into her past which explain why she behaves the way she does, I think it might be easier to identify with her.
Here we’ve started on a positive: “I think this piece has a lot of potential.” We’re acknowledging that the piece isn’t quite there yet, but that it can get there with the proper improvements. It’s also useful to start on a positive note because we writers are often sensitive folk. We want people to like our writing!
Next, we delve into specifics rather than generalities. Even if the entire piece really is a prolonged snore, lie to the author. Get specific about the boringness. Here we’ve highlighted an important element: the main character. Notice that we didn’t just write, “I don’t like her.” We’re communicating exactly what we think isn’t working. In our opinion, we don’t know enough about her. And then, finally, we offer a solution to the specific problem we’ve identified.
This is where we should be totally honest. Remember, the primary reason an author asks you to read their work is so they can make it better. Your general opinions on the quality of the work are often secondary. Because the truth is, first drafts are always bad. Writers know this. They just want to make them better.
So if a writer you know asks for feedback on a draft and you simply hate that draft, lie to them. Find something, anything you think they did right. Identify specific points where they can improve, rather than making sweeping, and ultimately unhelpful, negative statements.
Think of it as a fib if you have to. It’ll help your fellow writers very much.
Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.