Help me tell me friend she's a terrible writer
March 21, 2011 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I am currently a student in a graduate program. A very close friend, who is in the same program, has begun sending me essays for school and correspondence related to her job search to proofread. In doing so, I have noticed a pattern: her writing is full of truly awful, egregious run-on sentences. Nearly every sentence is a run-on. My friend is very smart and accomplished, and I'm not quite sure how she's come this far without this issue being brought to her attention. She has been experiencing disappointment in her grades and career search, and I suspect that this problem may be contributing to the situation. (We are in a highly competitive and nitpicky field.) I think that as a friend, I have a responsibility to bring this to her attention, but I have no idea how in the world to do so in a way that's sensitive and doesn't make her feel bad or damage the friendship. Do I need to tell my friend? If yes, how do I bring it up?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If she is asking you to proofread, she is asking for feedback. You have a totally open door to be helpful.

"Hey, one thing I noticed is that you should probably chop down some of your sentences." Then give examples, and perhaps have her look through the paper for other instances.

Yes, it's tough to correct someone, but she is asking you to. Your demeanor in this question gives me confidence that you can do it in a tactful and helpful way.
posted by The Deej at 2:31 PM on March 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

If she's asking you to proofread, I would think it's entirely appropriate to offer this criticism. Also give her a book recommendation like On Writing Well that stresses simplicity and clarity.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:31 PM on March 21, 2011

Just say, "I've noticed a pattern in your writing, and wonder if it's contributing to the issues you've experienced." Then bring up the topic of run-on sentences, and show a couple examples where breaking them apart will improve the writing.

Keep the focus on the work, not the person or her abilities.
posted by Work to Live at 2:33 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need to tell her. You could do it passive aggressively and open a throwaway email account and send it anonymously.

Or, tell her directly. She is asking you to proofread so you have your opening. Say like you have here and hope that, as a caring friend, she will listen. It will be hurtful, there may be some fallout, but if you're coming from an honest place she should appreciate the feedback in the long run.
posted by purephase at 2:34 PM on March 21, 2011

A story. I had a prof who was my friend. When I turned in papers, he would remark that they were great in ideas but wanting in writing. So too other teachers told me this. Then they would give me very good grades. Finally, going for dissertation my advisor would not accept anything that was not written properly That forced me to correct my writing and to learn what I was doing wrong and how to fix things.

Simply tell your friend that just perhaps the writing is getting her unfavorable grades and that you can point out a few things that might be altered to make her writing better. She should appreciate that from a friend rather than being offended. After all, if you do nothing, she is likely to get tossed out of the program and that will not make you feel better. l
posted by Postroad at 2:35 PM on March 21, 2011

Yes; you should tell her. She's your friend sending you her important writing to proofread, and you've observed a critical issue in her written communication skills that she needs to be aware of. We don't know your friend, so we can't tell how sensitive she is or how she'll respond. You'll have to assess that based on your relationship with her, but it would be more inappropriate of you to not say anything. I'd try not to make a big deal out of it, but I'd say she's looking to you to point this kind of thing out.

Maybe when you review her next essay, you can circle all the run-ons in purple pen or something so the problem is visually obvious. Then give her the essay and say something like "hey I noticed there were a lot of long run-on sentences in here. You know I've seen this before in your writing; has anyone mentioned this to you before?" From there, you guys can discuss what's going on and identify the common manifestations of the error. If she might be receptive, you can get her into see a friendly English professor or someone at the campus writing center to work with her on kicking this habit.
posted by zachlipton at 2:35 PM on March 21, 2011

I am completely blunt when asked to proof-read people's work. Just say "Your ideas are good, but they suffer because you have a tendency to write run-on sentences.".
posted by backwards guitar at 2:43 PM on March 21, 2011 [18 favorites]

Tell her, as others have said. And then tell her to make an appointment at your university's writing center (I bet you have one). There's no shame (or shouldn't be) in grad students using this resource, and run-ons and other sentence structuring failures are both common and can be unlearned.
posted by Mngo at 2:49 PM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

A friend in high school used to ask me to proofread her papers. She has some serious, serious issues with basic grammar. Like, subject-verb agreement bad. Like, using nouns where you should be using adjectives bad. Like spelling words incorrectly bad. The first time I read something of hers, I finally realized why she always got such poor grades.

I explained to her, as gently as I possibly could, that she needed to review basic grammar rules, and to always-always-always use Word's spell/grammar check.

She said--I shit you not--that she turned spell/grammar check off because it "messed up her writing style."

So yes, tell your friend. She has given you free license to tell her that she's a terrible writer. So just out with it. But don't be surprised if she responds saying that she's heard it before and has no interest in changing her ways. Some people are incomprehensibly stubborn and/or sensitive about their writing and refuse to listen to reason, even when they've asked for it. So tell her, and just try not to let it weigh on you so much.
posted by phunniemee at 2:53 PM on March 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Lot of run-on sentences here. Made 'em shorter for you so you can see how it's done."
posted by tel3path at 2:54 PM on March 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Definitely tell her. If you are worried about hurting her feelings, mention something you like about the essays before you bring up the run-on sentences. It might help keep her from feeling like you are being overly critical / picking on her writing style.
posted by jenne at 2:59 PM on March 21, 2011

I want to underscore the advice to recommend she make an appointment at the campus Writing Center. A good tutor can explain to her the characteristics of a sentence and how to link independent clauses correctly (using a comma plus a coordinating conjunction, a semicolon, or a period). It could just be one of those gaps in her knowledge-- she had a particularly ineffective third grade teacher or somehow missed the lesson.

This could be nitpicky, but just an FYI for you and her: a sentence can be a mile long and not be a run-on, so it's important to actually understand what makes a sentence a sentence. The Purdue University online writing lab (OWL) has lots of great handouts, including ones on comma splices (a form of run-on in which two independent clauses are connected with only a comma. This is the most common form of run-on and I bet it's what's cropping up in her work).

I also would not assume that she'll be wounded to hear that she seriously needs a punctuation refresher. A lot of people take great pride in their ideas and don't see grammar as that important or connected with their self-worth.

Here's how I'd approach it: Let her know that you found all the punctuation problems distracting and you think other readers will to and then point her to the school Writing Center, Purdue Owl, and other sources.

Sounds like you're a good friend.
posted by cymru_j at 3:01 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is she actually writing run-ons, or just very long sentences? I ask because the answer makes a difference. If she is really having trouble with basic sentence structures, like not recognizing when one sentence ends and another begins, and not using conjunctions to connect independent clauses, then, yes, she probably needs to get to the writing center or get some tutoring to learn to correct that. An actual run-on sentence looks like two independent clauses put together with no conjunction at all it might be something like this, for instance. In my experience as a college writing teacher, students who make this kind of mistake usually don't understand and recognize sentence structures, and they need remediation at that level.

A lot of people use "run-on" colloquially to mean "very long sentence," and I wonder if that's what you're doing here. If she's getting carried away with very long but technically correct sentences, then she still needs to separate the ideas in editing. One of my weaknesses in early drafts of academic papers has always been to pack too much into my sentences, and so it's always part of editing to think about where long, unwieldy and potentially unclear sentences can be divided. Students who are doing this are often good writers who are just getting carried away with trying to fit too many connected ideas into a single sentence. They don't usually, in my experience, need remediation. Just to have their attention drawn to the problem, and maybe some help thinking about how to fix it.

In either case, definitely give her the feedback. I'd just say give her the correct feedback.
posted by not that girl at 3:01 PM on March 21, 2011 [15 favorites]

If it will make you feel better about potentially making her feel bad, try the ole sandwich technique: compliment; criticism; compliment. It helps it end on a bright note :-)

For the record, I agree with everyone saying that you should def talk to her. I think she'll appreciate it, whether you sandwich the feedback with praise or not.
posted by Opal at 3:02 PM on March 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Be very careful. Sometimes "Please proofread this..." means "I'm searching for compliments. Gimme some." Even then, constructive criticism can be misconstrued as style differences. Writing can be a very personal thing. I've actually refused proofreading requests under the guise of not wanting to damage personal relationships. If you can answer, "Do I look fat in these jeans?" with a resounding yes...go for it. Otherwise, think twice.
posted by teg4rvn at 3:05 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing that might help is to get out of the mindset of "My friend is a terrible writer." If you think that, it'll likely show through even though you try to put it tactfully. If the problem really is as you describe it, she has exactly one writing problem. That's nothing! That's trivial! She's a great writer with one small, totally fixable problem that happens to look egregious because it's cropping up a lot.
posted by ootandaboot at 3:22 PM on March 21, 2011

You're in a perfect place to give her your feedback so do it.
I proofread a lot of papers for friends and if I notice a repetitive bad pattern in their writing, I usually point it out to them. Something like, "Hey, I noticed you have a lot of trouble with apostrophes in your possessives, want me to show you how to figure out where they go?" So far my friends have been pretty receptive and appreciate the private mini lesson. I like it too because I see less mistakes in their future papers.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:30 PM on March 21, 2011

Another thing you might try is to frame it in terms of needing to conform to the standard style of writing in your field. Because even really good writers have to learn that you can't write an academic paper in the same voice you'd use for a newspaper article or personal essay or what have you. Making it about style choices instead of how much she sucks might soften the criticism. (That's assuming that it is about choice, though, and not a fundamental lack of basic writing skills.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:32 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't be disappointed or offended if she doesn't take your advice to heart, or if she tries to "teach" you the finer nuances of writing well.

Last summer and fall, I proofread some papers for a friend who, as it turns out, is a truly dreadful writer. Initially, I didn't mind reading over and editing his work. However, I'd often make suggestions which he dismissed with, "Well, I like it my way better," even when "[his] way" was rendered nearly nonsensical by egregious spelling and grammatical errors.

Honestly, another friend began referring to me as "Penny Patterson", because the papers I was receiving to proofread looked like the ramblings of Koko the gorilla. After a few months, seeing his name in my inbox filled me with dread, because his emails were usually accompanied by a casual request to "read something," which meant I'd spend time making suggestions that were rejected.

I don't believe that any of my help had a lasting effect on the quality of his writing, and eventually, I stopped proofreading for him because it was a futile exercise that made both of us frustrated. Be aware that you might have a similar experience.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 3:39 PM on March 21, 2011

"You write a lot of run-on sentences. Divide them up to make your writing easier to follow, and so that each sentence has greater impact."

If they want to get precious about it, say "Go get a second opinion."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:43 PM on March 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been in the same situation. I decided to just tell my friend it sounded fine and just correct the spelling. It was so poorly written, that I didn't want her to feel judged by me for something like having poor writing skills.

What I chose to do isn't necessarily the right thing to have done, but I didn't want to embarrass her and I didn't want her to be upset with me. I was being fairly selfish but couldn't think of how else to say, "This isn't very good writing, to be honest" without hurting her feelings.

She got into the program anyway. Maybe someone else rewrote it for her or maybe the admissions people didn't care. Either way, I didn't have to say anything.
posted by anniecat at 3:46 PM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely help her with this - lots of people think they communicate much more clearly than they do, and it leads to all kinds of trouble.

Here's what I do with my students: First off, keep it confined to one document, at least at first. Rather than frame this as "here's a thing you always do," keep it as "you've done this several times here." One hopes she'll be able to generalize from your suggestions - if not, more drastic measures may be needed.

So, you have an essay of hers. Pick one or more things that you really like about it. It's especially helpful if you can highlight an idea in this essay that you liked. Lead with that - "this paper does x, y, and z, which is awesome."

Then explain that you noticed a number of instances where one sentence was "trying to do too much," and that you found it difficult to follow. I like "a sentence that's trying to do too much" better than the term "run-on sentence," because it sounds less pejorative; it sounds like the problem was partially due to an excess of ambition, which is much less likely to make her defensive. Also note that you describe the consequence of this - you weren't able to follow the thought. Further tell her that these sentences were getting in the way of the Awesome Idea that you led with. So now you're not telling her that this is wrong because some grammarians decided it's wrong, but because it isn't allowing the things that are best about her essay to shine. Finally, show her how to fix it - "look, if the sentences are broken up this way, the ideas each get highlighted in turn."

This kind of framing should help you avoid her getting defensive (not a guarantee - some people are very sensitive about their writing). But also note that bad writing patterns are really hard to change, and you may have to do this several times before you notice an improvement. If you keep trying this and she never fixes it, then it's time to risk a fight and have the "you do this all the time" conversation. But let's hope that's not necessary.
posted by Ragged Richard at 4:09 PM on March 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree, you should tell her. Although it's possible that her request for proofreading is fishing for compliments, if she really wants an editor and your opinion, there are ways to tell her what you think in a sensitive way. If she is really looking for compliments, she won't ask you again for feedback, and if you do it nicely, you'll run less risk of hurting her feelings.

Depending on what level of proofreading/editing you are comfortable doing, you may have some success with the following technique. I have used this technique when reviewing or editing documents for friends or classmates, and my research advisor also provided feedback to me this way when she was editing my Masters research paper. My friends have always appreciated this, and I also appreciated being on the receiving end of this type of feedback. I tend to be sensitive about criticism, fwiw.

If you have Word or some other word processing program, go in to the document and make edits to break up the long sentences and correct any other errors you see. I also make use of comments in places where appropriate - "I like how you've organized your section here, but there are a couple of edits I've made to perhaps more clearly express what I think you are trying to get at." Using comments allows you to soften the blow or provide positive comments and point out what you do like about her writing. Or highlight a paragraph where she has written sentences that aren't so long, or that you think are particularly clear or well written with a simple, "great paragraph!"

Once I've edited the document, I attach it to a covering email that sums up my overall thoughts about the paper and anything major that I've noticed - as Ragged Richard mentions doing with his students. This is where you can use the compliment-criticism-compliment sandwich that others have mentioned.

This may be more work that what you are being asked to do - i.e. doing this means you are potentially editing her document, rather than just doing a quick read-over and providing your thoughts. However, if you have the time and you don't mind doing this type of work, it can be a very effective way to provide comments and corrections to people.
posted by Cyrie at 4:20 PM on March 21, 2011

I've been on both sides of this.

My academic advisor did it to me - he told me bluntly that almost all of my sentences followed the exact same pattern of "sentence, and sentence". He then consistently called me out on it every time I overused that pattern in my writing. I don't know how well it's worked, but I'm at least aware of the problem now. The trick is that there was no feeling of judgment here, no implication of "you suck at writing" - it was a simple matter of "here's a problem, go fix it".

I routinely tell other students in my program that some facet of their writing is unclear. (But only after being asked to proofread!) I think that the key here is to be very clear that you're not attacking the person or their ideas, and to be matter-of-fact about it. Only go the compliment-criticism-compliment route if your compliments are as specific and heartfelt as the criticism ... if they feel forced or are clearly just filler to make me feel better it's far worse than just being given criticism.

Of course, if you don't trust that your friend is sincerely asking for help, feel free to decline to proofread for her. Please don't lie to her about her writing ability to make her feel better, as that has the potential to make her less likely to listen to other people who are telling the truth that might actually help her.
posted by Metasyntactic at 4:25 PM on March 21, 2011

Been there, done this, with a friend of mine who applied to grad school every year for most of a decade. Somewhere around the 8th year or so, she wanted me to proofread and I figured out what the problem was. I wrote up a detailed list of things that were wrong and how to fix them. She sent back "Here's what I fixed..." and um, she didn't fix about half of that.

She didn't get into grad school that year, but she did a couple years after that, and the work she's shown me from school is okay. So... man, beats me if I know. Some people will figure it out and some won't.

But what this is really going to boil down to here is, does your friend take criticism well, or is she only looking for praise? If it's the former, then tell her and hope it helps. If it's the latter... hell, don't do it. If you don't know, tread very cautiously and take your best guess on how to proceed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:46 PM on March 21, 2011

When I taught 4th grade it was required that the students give 'two kisses and a wish' (not my phrase) when doing peer critiques. The gist was, you'd say two things that you liked about the writing, and one that you wished was different. Worked a treat.

You know what your wish is, now just find two kisses.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:01 PM on March 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

As someone who wants to enter graduate school, this is something I'd want to know.
posted by SollosQ at 7:13 AM on March 22, 2011

Who did you learn to write from? Frame it as something they taught you. This is the strategy I use now when I occasionally help people proofread. For the exact same problem, too. I tell people, "when i was writing a manuscript with Dr XYZ, he made me rewrite a zillion times and this is what he told me: keep your sentences as short and to the point as possible." i then describe how the experience taught me to look for sentences or phrases that could be made shorter by using a more appropriate word, or splitting into two sentences, or whatever. but by framing it in the context of my own learning experience, i feel like it makes me seem less condescending. because i'm not saying 'i'm better at this than you.' i'm saying 'oh yeah, i had this exact same problem and here's how i overcame it.'

this is also sort of along the lines of what DestinationUnknown said too. Writing academically is not the same writing in undergrad English was. if you keep it more to 'your style isn't quite appropriate for the field' rather than 'you just plain suck' that ought to help too.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:49 AM on March 22, 2011

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