Writer's Block,  Writing Inspiration,  Writing Life

Best Friend, Worst Critic

“Hi! I am a perfectionist and always thinking about what people would like. So sometimes I send stories to my close friend and ask her opinion or just ask to read it. Last time she didn’t write back to me. Nothing. I feel I can’t write. I am just looking the empty word page. And after if I can’t write anything good, I feel depressed. What do you think about it? Can you help me somehow?”

I have this rule. No sending pages to friends. I break it constantly, but almost every time I do that I remember why I made this rule in the first place. In some friendships, writing can bring out tensions and strains you didn’t notice. It can put pressure on a friendship that might not be able to survive that.

When friends ask me to read their writing, I have no problem accepting. Sometimes I’m even eager too. I’ve heard about their project and I want to see it for myself. I don’t think of it as a big deal. After when I give feedback, I always say what I feel is appropriate. I try to be all business. Give constructive criticism like I would in a writing circle, critique group or workshop.

With friends, I do tend to make my comments a little more positive and focus more on the good than on the tough spots, but I never lie. I tend to focus on the silver lining. It’s a draft and not a finished product after all. So now, I guess, a story.

Somewhat recently, a close friend of mine suggested that we swap work. She sent me a couple thousand words and I did the same. I read it and because it was short, I didn’t have too too much to say yet. There was little to really critique. It was a first draft and it was a beginning. I thought it showed a lot of promise and tried to encourage her just to write more. It seemed to me like it was going to be a novel and I felt there was a lot of room for it to grow into a really cool project.

She told me that my project was “boring.” That it “wasn’t really her thing.” And when I asked about some of the places I was struggling with she had nothing to say. I could tell very quickly that she hadn’t read it. Instead of just telling her I knew she hadn’t read it, I kept asking questions, mostly just things about the premise and she ended up saying a lot of things that we both know was nonsense. She didn’t know who the main character was and couldn’t at all even say what the chapter was about.

While in some instances, I would say this kind of feedback is fair or justifiable. I’ve read stories where even reading them closely I couldn’t decipher what was happening, but this story that I’d written wasn’t like that. It was clear and straight-forward and when I showed it to a critique group a few weeks later, not one of them said anything remotely like what my friend had said about it. Her feedback wasn’t feedback. I could tell she hadn’t read my pages and instead of saying something nice and vague, she insulted me.

Anyway, it caused a lot of hurt and a strain between us when there didn’t need to be. Looking back I think a lot of the tension comes from how we’ve been friends since before we began actively pursuing writing. In other friendships I’ve had and been able to share work without hard feelings, we met as writers and critique partners first and later became friends.

Friends and even family members in general do not make reliable critique partners. Sharing work caused a strain between me and my friend, but more often, we see the opposite problem. Friends and family are so willing to be supportive and encouraging, they often are not good judges of problem spots or are willing to overlook things because it was written by someone they care about. They are less likely to be objective because the author is someone they care about.

Some writers will share work with the acclaim, “My husband loved it.” While that’s very sweet, it rarely speaks to the level of editing and critical attention it could have received.  I personally don’t share my work with family and constantly am telling myself not to with friends. While I wouldn’t say no to a friend who is asking to read my work, I have to prepare myself that they are not in a place where they can be objective just because of our relationship.

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