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Advice for Friends Who Want to Write

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

ragamuffin--child asked: Is there a polite way to tell a friend (who does have a work published) that her dreams of becoming a full time writer might be hindered by the fact she's not any good at it? Right now I'm simply holding my proverbial tongue.

You know, this is something that is actually relevant to our brickspace life - we’ve had to deal with this recently.

It depends on the level of closeness you have to them and what they can handle.  Ask them up front if you can give them a critical and honest opinion.  Sometimes people will say yes, sometimes people will say no.  If they say no, respect that. Not everyone can take criticism. And not everyone wants to hear criticism. And that’s fair.

But you don’t owe them your time, either. If they don’t want to hear your opinion, you aren’t obligated to read their work. You are not their yes-person. And you should not lie to them, because that will hurt them more in the long run, both as a friend and as a writer. A nice way to say this is thusly: “I’m really proud of what you’ve accomplished. However, as your friend, I think it’s important that I be honest with you. And you’ve indicated that you don’t want me to be honest and so I don’t want to put myself into a position where I might feel like I have to lie to you to spare your feelings.  It’s not fair to either of us.”

Writing is both a talent and a skill. Talent means that it’s innate, but just like anything else it really comes down to skill. And skills can be learned. The only way to learn a skill, however, is to practice.

Practice is writing stuff that will never get seen. Practice is writing things and sharing them but when you look back months or years later you cringe at your own writing.  Practice can be failing: putting something out there that nobody buys and nobody likes.  Failure is part of the learning process. And Practice is accepting that you don’t know it all and you’re not infallible. 

If your friend says that they’re willing to hear an honest and critical opinion, be honest but temper it with love. Your goal is not to get them to stop writing.  Your goal should never be to get them to stop writing.  Your goal is to help them become a better writer.  

So the first thing you need to do is point out where they did succeed, so they don’t change what’s not broken.  Everybody has something good.  You can find something good.  They might have a good turn of phrase.  They might have a good handle on just one character.  They might have a really pretty description.  Find something and make sure to point it out.

Then start with stuff that’s not nitpicky.  Don’t criticize spelling and grammar (that’s what a proofreader is for, and you’re not getting paid).  But do suggest “Hey, I thought the plot got resolved a little too quickly, I was left kind of wanting to have a little more buildup or a little more time to appreciate the conflict that they had before they were resolved” or “You know, your characters sounded really similar, and I know that can be really hard.  I’ve heard that a good thing to do is to give each character a voice that you hear like a character from a TV show - this character sounds like Han Solo and this other character sounds like Mr. Rogers.”  If they’re willing to read, give them resources.

If you don’t want to do as much labor-intensive work - which, trust us, we totally get - something you could do is basically say, “Hey, I didn’t enjoy your book as much as I could have.  I’m not quite sure why.  Have you considered getting involved in a writers’ group or hiring an editor?”  It’s an editor’s job to tell someone what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it. A writers’ group can offer support while also pointing out tricks and tips.

What’s not okay is to tell someone to give up their dream.  Who knows?  They might not be a great writer now, but they might be one in the future.  We had a friend in another internet community who was not a good writer when she started.  But with some coaching and practice, she got a hell of a lot better, and by the time she stopped writing, she was one of the better writers in our community (apparently saving animals’ lives was more her game ~_^).

The thing is, your friend wants to be a professional. And part of being a professional is learning how to take criticism. (This is one reason we encourage new authors to write fic - because they’ll learn how to handle criticism, trolls, and peer pressure.) No one enters the world as the “Best Author Ever!™” And there’s only so far you can go without a teacher/coach/mentor. You need the tools, and one of the things that gives you the tools is constructive criticism.

So ultimately, the first step is working up the courage to ask your friend what they can handle and then tailoring your response from there. 

Good luck!

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