Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where ice tea fans, Ice-T fans, and iced tee fans alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about how to give a friend feedback.
I have a wonderful, creative friend, (let’s call him John; is that anonymous enough?) that I’ve known for a long time and who I really want to support. He’s been working on a novel for a while now, and he’s super excited it about it; we talk about the story together, brainstorm ideas, all that. Up until recently, I hadn’t actually read it.
Last week, though, he sent me his rough draft, and… it sucks. It’s really, really bad. The plot is okay, I guess, but the writing is terrible, the dialogue is totally unbelievable, and I can’t help but see all the characters as Barbies and G.I. Joes John is puppeting around like a five-year-old.
That wouldn’t be such a problem, but John’s started asking me what I think, and I don’t know what to say. So far I’ve been putting him off and saying I want to finish the whole thing before I give him my opinions, but I can’t stall forever. I know John wants to send this thing out to try to get it published. Do I have an obligation to tell him the truth, as his friend and to save him the embarrassment? Or can I just say it was good and move on? I don’t want to hurt my friendship over a (really bad) novel.
Everyone’s a Critic
I want to praise you for having some good instincts, Critic. You obviously want to do right by your friend, and have great regard for his feelings. Unfortunately, even with those good intentions, this isn’t going to be an easy one. No matter what you do, this is a pretty delicate situation fraught with potential for hurt feelings, so, as you’ve clearly already realized, you’re going to have to be very careful here.
First, think about John: is he the kind of person who can take constructive criticism well, or will he crumple the second he realizes your response isn’t unadulterated praise? I hope it’s the former, because if so, you have a real opportunity to help John improve, and see weaknesses he may not yet recognize in himself. Even if he is, remember to be fair and gentle in your remarks; it’s a cliché, but a compliment sandwich isn’t a bad idea. If you tell him two things you liked about the book (if you can think of that many) for every one you hated, it can really soften the blow of pointing out serious issues and help him feel more receptive toward what you’re telling him. Plus, it sounds like you’ve already been involved in John’s process so far, and this is an opportunity to keep that up — I assume you’ve enjoyed the brainstorming and world-building you’ve done with him to date, though if you haven’t maybe this is a chance to set up some boundaries.
If John can’t take criticism, however, he’s in for a rough ride if he does want to be professionally published, and you can’t save him from that. John may feel like his book is his baby, but a novel is more like a mangy stray dog getting groomed for the first time: it probably won’t look the same when it comes out as it did when it went in (and it may just involve the same amount of blood, sweat and tears to get there).
[Editor’s note: For discussion of a book that suffers from insufficient editing, check out Jack of 4 Trades‘ series on Sean Penn’s new book, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.]
So if your criticism can only hurt John, your only real obligation is to not lie to him. Don’t pretend that you think his novel is a masterpiece, but perhaps focus on the parts of the book you did like, and keep your broader opinions close to the vest. If he really pushes you, maybe offer something more easily fixed: a poorly-worded sentence, or an idea for a different chapter title. Hopefully, you can redirect the conversation and be supportive without turning yourself into a fawning yes-man. After all, he is your friend, and a pile of bullshit isn’t exactly a strong foundation for any relationship.
Something to keep in mind is that you may well be wrong about John’s book, after all. There’s no accounting for taste, and maybe what comes across to you as hackneyed and unbelievable is authentic and moving to a different audience. It’s also possible that he’s going for a corny, unbelievable tone; maybe his book is meta-commentary on modern literature! You can’t bet on that, though, and no matter what you do, your best course of action is to be there for John, come what may — whether he’s an overnight sensation or publishers get restraining orders against him. Either way, having a friend in his corner will certainly be appreciated.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.