The subtle art of asking a friend to critique your manuscript

22 September 2021

The subtle (and not so subtle) art of giving feedback to a writer, by London based Scottish cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld.

Writers know one of the scenarios Gauld envisages is going to play out. But it started me thinking; what if you’re an aspiring author, in other words, unpublished. How do you go about seeking feedback for the manuscript you’ve possibly spent years toiling over, when you don’t have the luxury of being able to call on an editor?

Should you ask friends? It’s probably what most people would think of. But if what a bunch of people agree to take a look, and you end up hearing nothing back? How do you interpret that? To mean your writing is subpar? That’s what I might think. On the other hand, it could be your friends are time-poor, like everyone else.

Expecting someone to read and digest one hundred thousand words and supply commentary, especially in the space of say a week, is a big ask by any standard. Perhaps a more graduated approach is a better idea, something Chicago based writer and filmmaker Jennifer Peepas suggests:

If someone volunteers to read your novel, send them the first chapter or so. If they write back to you wanting more, you have good feedback from that act alone: You wrote a good first chapter, you hooked them, they do actually want to read it, and they will likely give you notes.

That’s not a bad idea. But let’s get to the nitty-gritty. A friend has sent you their writing for critique, and it… it’s terrible. How do you respond? Without causing offence, and destroying the friendship? Freelance editor and writer Meg Dowell thinks the prospective author should put themselves in their friend’s position before sending anything. Long story short, maybe it’s best you don’t ask in the first place:

As humans often do, I turned this question back on myself and tried to imagine myself as the bad writer friend dreaming big. Would I want someone to tell me my writing kind of sucked? Or would I have a better experience continuing to write to my heart’s content and chase my dreams even if it wasn’t likely they’d come true? I’m not sure I would want to know if my writing was terrible. At least, I’m not sure I’d want to hear it from someone close to me. If I were passionate enough about writing to work hard in an attempt to make it, having my dreams crushed before my eyes … I don’t know how I would handle that.

I’m not sure anyone could tell a friend their would-be novel sucked though. More likely they’d say they really liked it, and they’re looking forward to the book launch. After all, that’s what friends are for. This is a matter requiring of further research, and follow-up. In the meantime, go and look at more of Tom Gauld’s work. It’s stellar, unlike asking friends to critique your writing.

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