How do I give feedback on a new friends self-published book if it's bad?
August 21, 2018 7:48 AM   Subscribe

I am an unpublished writer who recently made a new writing friend! Hurray! However, my new writing friend has self published a book, and she's asked me to read it and tell her what I think. This book is blatantly not good and she has no idea. What do I tell her?

I won't go into a lot of details, but this book is "every sentence ends with an exclamation mark plus the characters are all the same whiny person" levels of bad. I purchased it and tried reading it not long after I first met her, and gave up, and I'm honestly not usually the type to give up on books. I didn't tell her that I had tried reading it because it seemed cruel to tell her that I read her book only to tell her that I hated it. I mean, it's already published, it's out in the world, she's working on a different manuscript, she's not looking to take this book down and do extensive edits.

My plan was to just not bring this book up, since I had nothing nice to say, and wait until she asked for feedback on her next manuscript, since then any criticism would be constructive, and she'd be in a good place to go back and make the work better. However, now she's straight up asked me to read the published book and give her feedback, and I don't know what to tell her.

I don't feel like any criticism I could give on her published work can be counted as constructive since the book is already published. I also don't want to lie to her face and tell her that this book is amazing because it's really, really not, and I have a sneaking suspicion that she's living in a bit of an echo chamber writing-wise. She's a sweet person and clearly has no idea at all that her book isn't wonderful because no one wants to tell her; two close friends of hers have left glowing reviews of the book on amazon, and I've met her husband and get the feeling that he's the type to tell her its good because he loves her. So if I tell her it's great, I feel like I'm just contributing to that echo chamber.

I have zero idea how to approach this. Help!
posted by bridgebury to Human Relations (39 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
She's your friend and I see no harm in contributing to the echo chamber. Is there ANY quality that you can give a positive comment about? Something you found merely "interesting"? Start with something small and sincere.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:50 AM on August 21, 2018 [11 favorites]

Seconding Dressed to Kill. Somewhere in the entire book there might be a character description, a snippet of dialogue or a plot development that you actually like. Tell her that you like those parts.

And congratulate her for finishing the project and publishing it. A lot of self-described authors never get that far.
posted by Longtime Listener at 7:55 AM on August 21, 2018 [20 favorites]

When I make dessert and my family eats it they all ooh and ah over it even though its not worthy of the Great British Baking Show. If she wanted 'honest' feedback she would ask. Id say 'nice book! I really like when the unicorn played the saxophone!' and leave it at that. The world will go on. She's enjoying herself. Maybe her next book will be better. Maybe someday she will write a really good book, or a better book, simply because she had the confidence to keep writing.
posted by ian1977 at 7:56 AM on August 21, 2018 [12 favorites]

Well, this is obviously a tough spot to be in as you don't want to hurt your friend's feelings. I would follow Dressed to Kill' s suggestion of finding a couple things that you did think were good, and commenting on those. However, I'm not sure it's doing your friend any favours to avoid constructive feedback that could help her with her future writing. Did you get the sense that she wanted actual feedback, or just someone to tell her how great she is? If there's any hint of the former, I would give her some genuine feedback, worded in a constructive fashion. If you balance your feedback out and comment on both positives and negatives, this might help her out with her work without making her feel like you hate it.
posted by DTMFA at 7:58 AM on August 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

Maybe something (presumably true) like, "You know, I started it, but then I realized you've come so far in your writing and I'd rather just focus on $YourCurrentProject."
posted by carmicha at 7:58 AM on August 21, 2018 [15 favorites]

OMG the more you tell someone that their work is good the more they will make you read it. Yeah, find the small good things, and be polite, but don't whitewash.
posted by Melismata at 7:59 AM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a writer and editor, and this is such an awkward situation. I'm sorry.

I'd read it, and then get back to her and say something like, "I finished the book! I liked [x]. How are you planning to handle [maybe a similar plot point or something] in your next book?" Pivoting to the project she's working on now might mean that you don't have to say much.

If she pushes, tell her that you're not really comfortable critiquing a published work, because it feels like a distraction from what you're both working on now. If she doesn't take the hint, it might be worth considering how attached you are to this new friend, and if the friendship is worth continuing.
posted by mishafletch at 8:03 AM on August 21, 2018 [39 favorites]

Say something nice about it, and then say if she would like some unbiased feedback she could get in touch with a professional editor.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:05 AM on August 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

Is there any chance you can bow out with "oh, it seemed interesting, but honestly it's just not a genre I read so I'm not the best person to ask?" Otherwise I would do what mishafletch says.

If she keeps pushing (some people just will not be deflected), pick one thing you think she could improve and tell her that.
posted by stillnocturnal at 8:08 AM on August 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

If her characters are all the same, maybe her new book's story is similar enough to her old book that you could treat this one as a chance to build upon thing X from the first book and do it "even better" this time.

The thing I wondered about in reading your question is whether it might be best for this person to stay protected inside an echo chamber. I guess to me it depends on whether you see potential in her. What I mean is, if her stuff is like super Tommy Wiseau terrible, maybe she needs her illusions.

If I were to read someone's writing and it was so bad, so misguided that I saw no hope for them to ever get good at stories, I don't think I'd even criticize their work. Because why shatter their dreams unless you see the potential for them to do tons better? If they showed potential, on the other hand, only then would I feel like "ok it's time to bust them out of the echo chamber, so they can learn how far you have to go up the mountain to contend with the cruel and uncaring world of Goodreads reviewers"...
posted by johngoren at 8:15 AM on August 21, 2018 [9 favorites]

She's looking for compliments here, not on guidance how to improve. No good will come of being honest.

If you just can't bring yourself to lie, then focus on how awesome it is that she got it done and published, because yeah, most aspiring authors never get that far.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:17 AM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ive said before “I can tell you love your characters so much” and “your voice really comes through so clearly” in situations like this
posted by sestaaak at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2018 [16 favorites]

Oh boy yes...

[I was once asked to translate the libretto of an "opera", composed by a person who was friends with my parents and hence is friendly towards me.
I was initially totally in "It can't be that bad let's have a look"-mode but the work turned out to be abysmal, bad way beyond bad, clumsy and embarrassing at every turn.
After the first challenge (keeping a straight face, and saying "this is interesting, but I'll have to give it a closer look,") I decided I best acknowledge that the script was "different" (which was more or less the phrasing I had previously gotten from him), and that my own writing style was so unlike his that I feared I couldn't make a good job of the translation, or, 'catch the right spirit'.]

Translated to your situation: you could say that, yes, you read it but it is difficult for you to give a full assessment because her style is very different from what you would do, and so you can't judge very well how well her devices work for other readers.
If pressed, you could tell her that you yourself, for example, perhaps wouldn't use exclamation marks in the way she does (but that's neither here nor there), and that the installation of monochromatic characters seems to you like an interesting device, but that you would have to explore for yourself a bit how well it worked in an actual plot.
Expand as fits: the technique is to acknowledge her writing in a would-be analytical manner, while trying to stay away from value judgments. Try not to sound dubious, but honestly undecided about things that are weird or bad or clumsy.
Hope this works. This kind of stuff is really hard.
posted by Namlit at 8:23 AM on August 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

I was your friend once. Self-published a novel when I was young. In hindsight, it's poorly written. But people were nice about it, following the first advice you got ("This must have been a lot of hard work! I liked the part where [x]"). A more complete and more honest critique would have been hard to take.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:25 AM on August 21, 2018 [16 favorites]

I think it's possible to deliver some helpful criticism without destroying this person's ego. First, start with the positive, even if the positive points are things (like others above have mentioned) like you can really see the passion in her writing, or there was a good concept that is fertile for more exploration, or even the length itself is impressive. Then move into things you feel could be improved. In the two examples you gave, you could point out that her sentence construction could benefit from a little more variety, and provide a few examples. If she seems receptive to that point you could work into other topics, such as wanting to see more clearer difference between the protagonist and antagonist, or whatever. If during the conversation she tries to debate your criticism and provide justifications for why she did things the way she did, then just drop it an back away. But you might find that she is interested in hearing how she can improve. Just be gentle in your delivery and see how receptive she is to anything that isn't a glowing comment.
posted by slogger at 8:48 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I may be the dissenting voice here. I would give her honest feedback. It doesn't need to brutal, but it should be honest. I think all good writers have some level of insecurity. That insecurity is based around wanting to be good or better. If no one is telling her she's not good, she isn't being given the opportunity to be better.

If you're worried about losing her as a friend, you may preface it by saying, "I have some feedback, and it's not all positive, are you sure you want to hear this from me? I like having you as a friend, and I see potential in your writing. It may be better to hire a professional editor."
posted by slipthought at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2018 [14 favorites]

If I were in your situation and this friend brought up the topic, I'd probably say I haven't had time to finish her book yet. If she were to bring it up again, I'd find a few nice things to say (even if it's something like "OMG the cover is so pretty!") and then mention one or two constructive things in as positive a light as possible. Instead of "All the characters are the same whiny person," something like "Gosh, I felt like this character had so much potential -- I would've loved to read a little more about what makes her unique! I wanted to get to know her better."

In my college writing workshops, I always tried to make my feedback a mix of praise and tactful-but-constructive critique. Most of my classmates hated me, LOL.

Also, I like slipthought's preface comment. Maybe include something about feeling awkward about critiquing a published book and offering instead to look at a future manuscript before it's pubbed, if you'd be willing to do that.
posted by QuickedWeen at 9:03 AM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

When anyone asks for feedback on their writing, I ask what kind they want. Line edits? Reader response? Do you want me to look for consistency issues, suggest better wording, or just tell you what I think?

If she's looking for just your opinion, you can just give her white lies, trying to be as realistic as possible. But if she wants a real critique, that would be pointed, even if it was good. I've done beta reading for a few friends, and it involves poking holes in the book. That might or might not be what she wants, but either way, you should both be clear on what you're getting into.

Also, it is entirely acceptable to say "You know, I prefer not to read the work of friends unless we're doing a deep dive critique. It can just get really emotional and uncomfortable."
posted by gideonfrog at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2018 [10 favorites]

I think people who are bad writers also don't know how to ask for honest feedback, so I would not be giving a frank assessment of the book. I don't think they secretly want it. That kind of feedback should come from a paid editor or writing coach.

A couple of decades ago a friend asked me to read a manuscript. I did. It was terrible. Like so many, they thought stream-of-consciousness and "anything goes" and "what first comes to mind is the purest and most true" are good writing strategies. I told them what I thought and I lost a friend. Now I simply refuse to read friends' books. "Sorry, but what if I don't like it?" All of the best writers I know totally respond to that line. Instead, I buy friends' books anonymously and then surprise them with nice comments if I enjoyed them.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:11 AM on August 21, 2018 [22 favorites]

Don't give her any feedback.
Tell her she's amazing for finishing it. Tell her that as a writer, you've found that you get really sensitive/anxious/obsessive about feedback sometimes, even if it's good, and you know that of course she's not like that but it's such a sensitive thing for you that you just always make it a point to not personally know your critics or the authors of works you criticize. Or any other explanation. If she's serious about improving her writing, offer to point her to some other people/communities that might give her feedback, if you're able. But don't do it yourself.

*I did give the requested feedback in a similar situation. I tried at first to avoid it and then to do it gently and minimally. My friend kept insisting on more input and asking specific questions despite not actually being ready to hear anything not positive and in short, it didn't go well and I think left both of us with bad feelings about each other.
posted by trig at 9:19 AM on August 21, 2018 [11 favorites]

I would absolutely tell her you don’t feel comfortable giving feedback on her published work. If she wants to run some current work by you, and ask for specific feedback, there’s an actual purpose to that. Nothing can be changed about the published book, so what’s the point? I’m sure she’d agree her current work is very different. Focus on that. (And then bring up the overuse of exclamation marks if they’re in the new work. Yikes.)
posted by greermahoney at 9:26 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh, gosh, do I ever feel you. I would not suggest lying. For no other reason than if you lie about her writing once, you may be pressured to continue lying about it or to promote it. (The hustle is real and necessary for self-published writers. And if she doesn't know you don't like the work, well....)

I've been asked to give feedback about lots of writing, published or otherwise, for friends, and that has almost never ended well. Over the years, I've learned that saying "It's not my thing" can be both honest (for you) and face-saving (for them). If I wanted to demonstrate ongoing interest in that person's writing or if I wanted to avoid being asked why, I'd follow that up by asking what drew them to that story or that character.

Only slightly related, I have a friend whose solution to being asked for feedback by her friends is this: She buys every book her friends publish, displays them on her shelves, and is explicit about the fact that she never ever reads them in case she ends up not liking them.
posted by platitudipus at 10:00 AM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's good advice upthread. You're right; There's no saving this book. It's already published. Do as others have suggested and be mild and vaguely positive in your comments about the book.

However, do you think that she's interested in growing as a writer? Does she have potential? If you think she's willing to do the work, and is worth the effort, you might offer to be a beta reader on her next project. That's where you can help her grow as a writer.
posted by cleverevans at 10:03 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd ask her what she wants out of the feedback. If she tells you again that she wants honest feedback so she can improve her writing, you should then be clear that your honesty may come with constructive criticism and that she should be prepared for that. If she still wants it, do it. Unless she's a really good friend and you value her new friendship a lot... but why would you want a friend you always feel that you have to lie to?
posted by ancient star at 10:12 AM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think directly asking anyone to read a whole book (I’m assuming this is a full-length novel, like 80k words or more) and critique it is quite demanding. People charge a lot of money to do that. Having got that considerable favour, I think she owes you the patience and hardihood to deal with a polite but truthful response.
posted by Segundus at 10:53 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

"I'm so impressed that you finished this and are already working on future books. I think persistence and consistency are so important for successful writing. I don't really read in this genre much, so it's hard for me to be really concrete, but I felt like you knew your characters really well, had spent a lot of time in their heads, that came through to me. I can see that you really wanted to connect their emotional journeys to what was was physically happening in the plot, that was clear. I'm not converted to reading Albanian veterinary urban fantasy mysteries (or whatever the genre is) , ha ha, but you must be really proud of it. "

Its like writing astrology, just say things that are true for everyone, and reorientate discussion around their feelings rather than facts.

Don't give honest feedback, it's just gonna hurt someone's feelings.
posted by smoke at 2:32 PM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also remember, lots of really bad writers are successful authors. Dan brown is like a billionaire ffs, there's a lot more to it than ability.
posted by smoke at 2:34 PM on August 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

If your going to give constructive feedback (and you do not have to!!) Make sure the feedback is right above her current skill level and achievable for that writer.

Writing is like any other skill based sport. You don't tell a new iceskater she needs to land complicated jumps, you instruct so that she learns something to consistently add to her routine. You add one skill at a time.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:50 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I suspect you can frame this as an intellectual exercise or a relational exercise but not both. Relational success (e.g., warm fuzzies as you applaud her) looks different from intellectual success (e.g., rigorous editing). It won't hurt anyone for there to be an excess of exclamation points in the world. It might hurt both of you if you're honest from the intellectual perspective at the expense of honesty from the relational side.

You could tell her you don't have capacity to read it, you want to focus on giving feedback only on works in progress, or you don't read friends' work in that way. Then help her connect with writing groups, offer to attend a class with her, or buy her a round with an editor for her next birthday. There might be ways you can help her connect with a different messenger on the point of her writing. This assumes she actually wants critical feedback and improvement. I think it's likely she mainly wants to be supported. And that might totally be what she needs at this stage of her writing journey as well.
posted by ramenopres at 4:07 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would praise the actual act of finishing and publishing a book - the effort and dedication involved is seriously commendable. If she asks for more specific feedback, either tell her something vague like you enjoyed the descriptive qualities of xxx and the character development of y but if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, tell her you don’t feel qualified.

Anything you would say would only be opinion based only, and that if she wants genuine constructive criticism, her best bet is to hire an editor because they know what they’re talking about. Seriously, they get paid to break down people’s egos and be the bad guy. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.
posted by Jubey at 5:28 PM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is a hard one because, imo, there is too much praise for mediocre work already, "just because they finished it" and so on, and yet, one doesn't want to take on the role of Nasty Critic either. Frankly, providing either praise or criticism is the job of a professional editor and not your job as a friend. Lest I get attacked, let me say that I am well aware that for many people finishing something, anything, is an accomplishment. I get that. But this writer is not being asked to be praised for finishing and publishing her book. Rather, she appears to be seeking praise for the creative work itself. I would not recommend giving it to her if you did not like the work. I would do as others said and just say you do not comment on your friends' creative works, as tactfully as possible. You are not doing her quality of writing, or your friendship, any favors by encouraging her to write more books that then will cause a repeat of this cycle. Take on a neutral stance and stick to it.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 6:13 PM on August 21, 2018

This is so, so common for self-published (and unpublished) authors. I wouldn't even worry about giving a vague response. She's not serious about wanting to improve (if she were she would seek out a real editor and maybe a serious workshop environment), so you don't have to be serious about giving criticism.
posted by Miko at 8:12 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Writing is like any other skill based sport. You don't tell a new iceskater she needs to land complicated jumps, you instruct so that she learns something to consistently add to her routine. You add one skill at a time.

Probably the best comment on this thread. Focus on what your friend can improve on, not what she is doing wrong.

"I liked [x] but less exclamation marks as it just detracts from the story" delivered nicely is a good feedback.

"Your book is terrible" is bad feedback.

Obviously the easiest, least confrontational way is to not give any answer or feedback. But I think most of us in life can do with some gentle tips when we ask for feedback (which your friend did). We all could do with being a bit more involved with life and our communities, and giving writing feedback to a writing buddy is a completely appropriate way of being involved.
posted by moiraine at 5:49 AM on August 22, 2018

> If no one is telling her she's not good, she isn't being given the opportunity to be better.

> However, do you think that she's interested in growing as a writer? Does she have potential? If you think she's willing to do the work, and is worth the effort, you might offer to be a beta reader on her next project. That's where you can help her grow as a writer.

Look, let's be real here. This is not a support group for beginning writers, this is AskMe, and we're trying to help bridgebury, not bridgebury's friend. Based on the description, this is not a matter of a writer just starting out who's got some problems but can improve with the aid of constructive criticism. This is a person who has no idea what writing is about and is never going to get better. If you think I'm being cynical, you obviously have no experience with slush piles and/or actual writers. I don't even need to see the friend's book to know it's hopeless; "every sentence ends with an exclamation mark plus the characters are all the same whiny person" tells me all I need to know. Please, people, don't subject bridgebury to a lifetime of having to read this person's dreck; help bridgebury to escape with the fewest possible hurt feelings. I think the best advice is Mo Nickels': refuse to read friends' books. Otherwise you're just asking for continuing torture or the unpleasant end of a friendship.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would not do the "damning with faint praise" thing. Many people will see right through that, and then they are left struggling to guess what they might really be doing wrong. It can certainly derail someone who is struggling to put their writting out in the world (ask me how I know). This is just my personal taste, but I'd rather hear that you aren't comfortable critiquing friends work (and have that be true. If you only say that to people who's work you hate, that will, I promise, also be discovered by them at some time). I'm sorry you are in this uncomfortable situation. I wish now I hadn't put a couple of my own friends in the same place.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:54 PM on August 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Twenty years ago or so, a friend asked for reviews of a screenplay he had written. I spent around 20 hours reading it and writing comments. It would have been at least a ten hour movie and seemed to just be a bunch of people hanging out at work swearing.

Since he was a friend, I tried my best to be honest and helpful. I pointed out what I thought worked and what I thought didn't. I didn't think I would be doing him a favor just blowing pink steam up his ass.

He's never talked to me again.

This is not to say he's an asshole or I'm an asshole, but I'm pretty sure it's one or the other. If such a request comes my way again, I will probably just decline. I have no advice to offer, just the story.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:45 PM on August 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

Everyone here has wonderful comments.

When someone you know asks what you think of their work, you say:

- I am so impressed! My goodness that must have been so much work!

- I loved the part where __________!

- How did you come up with the part where _________??

- Seriously, this is awesome.

Giving people any kind of critique is like asking a woman if she's pregnant. You might be right but whooo doggy what a risk.
posted by amicamentis at 1:53 PM on August 23, 2018

Response by poster: Just reporting back to say that I finished the book. I gave my friend the politest feedback that I could; pulled out what few things I did like and talked about them, gave her honest answers to the few specific questions that she asked when I asked what sort of feedback she wanted.

She reacted badly to the honest answers and called me out for being polite. "I think you're just being polite. Just say you didn't like it." When I admitted that no, I hadn't liked it, she laughed it off and said that she didn't care, that I shouldn't feel bad for not liking it, she just wanted her friends to have read her book (in which case, why did she push so hard to get me to admit I hadn't liked it if she didn't care that I liked it?). When I said that her calling me on my polite critique when she clearly could tell that I didn't like the book made me uncomfortable, she said that she was sorry that I felt that way. When I pointed out that she had made me feel that way, she went silent.

We aren't really talking anymore. Could it have been better handled? Probably. I think we wanted different things out of a writing friendship, though, so it's probably for the best.
posted by bridgebury at 1:48 PM on September 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

As you can see from all the comments, it is a predictable predicament in the writing community. I recommend being very selective about writing friends and workshop partners, and not offering to read anything unless it's a serious critique.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on September 27, 2018

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