Aspiring writers asking for input

I’ve been reading the blog of a young writer whose work I like, and I noted recently that someone had left him a comment asking him if he’d look at a story, critique it essentially. I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for the blog-writer. On the one hand, sure, it’s flattering to know that someone wants your opinion and thinks your talent/skill is good enough that you could give them valuable advice. On the other hand, like most people this is a busy person, and he’s being asked to perform a service that takes a fair amount of concentration and time to do right that people get paid to do (teachers, editors, writing coaches).

I’m sure the person asking for the favor just hasn’t really stopped to think about what it is he’s asking for. He’s thinking, okay, ten minutes to read the story, five minutes to make a few comments–but it isn’t that easy. Anyone who really cares about the craft of writing enough to actually want to help you out by giving you a critique is going to need to spend a lot more time than that on a piece in order to give you any advice worth hearing. He’s also probably thinking that this writer is a lot like him, presumably with plenty of free time to do fun things he’d like to do, and that it wouldn’t be hard for him to spare 15 minutes–but the truth is that writing pays so little for most people that many writers don’t tend to have much spare time, particularly when you go back to that point about a good critique taking much more than 15 minutes to generate.

Then there’s the emotional component. This person might truly want honest input, and he might even be able to handle it. But the truth is that a lot of people who think they want a critique from an author they admire really want validation from that author, to be told that their work is good, not that it needs help (or even a LOT of help, in some cases). Most authors aren’t going to want to take the chance that they’re going to put in a couple of hours of gratis editing work only to be yelled at (or worse) for their trouble, or to face a train wreck of a devastated young writer who believes that being told he needs to improve means he’s been told he’s a horrid writer.

Besides, not all good authors make good editors. A writer might well be doing herself a disservice by asking her favorite author for a critique. She’s probably much better off finding a writing coach, class or professional editor. If she can’t afford one of those or would prefer to work with peers, she can check local newspapers or flyers or online message groups to find a real-world or electronic critique group or workshop–they’re all over the place!

It can be really tough for authors who get requests like this, particularly if they’re very polite people and don’t want to have to let someone down. It can be difficult for some people to find a polite, assertive way to say “no”–particularly because some others will take offense at the refusal no matter how well it’s worded. If you have developed a friendship with an author it can be wonderful to establish a mutual practice of critiquing each other’s work, but I think it’s really best not to ask for such a thing unless you know someone at least a little, and then it’s much better if it’s a mutual thing, not one-sided. It’s also best, I think, if this is done between writers of a similar level of ability, who both have something to offer each other.

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3 comments on “Aspiring writers asking for input
  1. Psyae says:

    My problem is that I get asked to review some writing, and I don’t know exactly what the writer wants out of me. Specifically, I have two “modes” of editing. I have my grammatical mode and my style mode. Generally, I start with the former mode, and start adding or subtracting commas, correcting spelling, adding paragraphs, etc. I’ll then make suggestions regarding style and usage.

    After I’m done with all that (and the paper, if it’s paper) looks like a red pen bled all over it, I’ll hand it back with a smile, and the writer will always respond with, “I didn’t want you to rip it apart! I just wanted you to help me write it better!”


    Obviously what we lacked was proper principal/agent communication. The writer wants me to do something. The writer assumes I know what the writer wants me to do. I assume the writer knows what I’m going to do. The end result is often disaster.

    My word of advice for either side in this predicament is to make it absolutely clear what’s desired and what will be given, and for no party to expect more than what’s explicitly stated.

    Although that’s a better way of handling it, it’s still not perfect, as there can be many miscommunications between parties. But, it’s better than nothing.

    What I do now: I ask, “Would you like me to edit your writing for basic grammar and punctuation, or would you like me to edit it for clarity and style, or a combination, or something else?” And then I get clarification about exactly what the writer wants.

    Heck, just the initial conversation before I even see a piece of work could take 15 minutes.


  2. Good way of doing it. 🙂 The first editor I had on a professional contract was an old friend, and he wielded what I like to call an “editorial chainsaw”. The experience was very painful, but very VERY helpful. I still remember a lot of the lessons he taught me, and my writing is much better for it. Of course, I’ve also had one editor who got fairly out of line, I thought. The difference is that one pointed out the flaws in my writing, and the other was having a bad day and took it out by slamming me instead of my writing.

    Unfortunately some editors don’t know the difference between the two, and many writers don’t know the difference either (thus leading them to take less-than-positive comments on their writing as personal attacks).

  3. Scott M says:

    It’s interesting having that role (casually) around the office. Sometimes removing the apostrophe from the it’s on a drawing will make people crazy– they’ve been doing it wrong for long enough that they want it kept, just to be consistent. It can be very amusing.

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