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.