Being asked to provide feedback on a friend’s writing is a privilege. It shows that they respect your opinion – that they respect you. You have been trusted with their hopes and dreams. It is your responsibility do a good job in good faith.
You have been selected as a mentor, not a critic.
Your responsibility is to respond with something useful. If there is nothing at all useful you can say, then excuse yourself from the situation. Refrain from saying things for the sake of being seen to have something to say. If you feel you can’t extricate yourself from the situation, restrain yourself from resorting to nasty comments; it’s passive aggressive, grow some balls and back out politely.
First and foremost remember that this piece of writing is their baby. Remember that they have slaved over this, long and hard. They have formed a relationship with the words, the characters, the structure. Everything is laid out in their minds, as clear as a bell. And they have offered it up for sacrifice at your hands.
You have the power to encourage both the development of their skills and the story. You can also stop everything dead. Tread carefully.
If you say it, say it with a smile. The choice of words are important, but so is the body language and the vocal tone.
Learn about the Feedback Sandwich. Begin with a sincere compliment, identify a major issue or two only, finish with a compliment. Avoid blustering your way through, it will be perceived as insincerity; likewise humour can be perceived as cruel. Leave them feeling they have something to work with, not that their ambitions are pointless.
‘I liked the way you handled the conflict scene, it felt very real. I did have a few queries about the plot, as I felt there were a few unresolved questions – like why Lord Lusty dug a shallow grave? If you resolve the plot questions it would really help polish an intriguing story.’
‘Gosh, you’re attractive, I hate romance novels, there were plot holes over the place. And don’t you know how to use a spell-check? I think you need to go on a beginner’s course to learn how to write <laughs>. Anyway, I’d like to buy you a drink, gorgeous.’
It is perfectly acceptable for you to not enjoy their chosen genre, we all have preferences, after all. It is not acceptable to state that it was awful because you hate romances. If you can’t find anything to put into the feedback sandwich method, then don’t say it. See that face on the left? Try to avoid it.
‘Romance is not my normal genre, however I felt the characters were well developed. An aspect I’m unclear on was why Lord Lusty decided to dig that shallow grave, what was the relevance of that?’
‘You’re evidently following the ’50 Shades of Shite’ writing model.’
A Note on Critiquing Biographical/Memoir Writing
This is a tricky area. Sharing difficult life experiences can be painful as well as therapeutic for the writer.
Remember that the writer may have drawn on life experiences that could be worlds apart from your own. Just because a life experience on the page does not seem plausible to you does not mean that it cannot happen.
Remember that you were asked to critique their writing skills and how they deliver an engaging story, not to comment on their life. They may be using writing as a form of therapy, however feedback can easily digress to off-writing discussion of their actual life experiences as opposed to the writing skills.
I’ve made my own, bad, mistakes in this area – and hopefully have learnt from them.