I have a friend who is a rather ambitious (writing and otherwise), and has even self-published a couple of books. I know having a sense of self-confidence is a good thing, but just churning out luke-warm books and blogs which have little to no feed back will not help (save from a few lovely friends and family). What is the most tactful way to approach this, and say, maybe work on your skills a bit more before you spend money on publishing your books?

I strongly admire the work ethic, but I feel my friend desperately needs some guidance in the quality sphere.

I'm not sure if this question is better suited in interpersonal.se

  • Do you have any more constructive or substantial guidance for your friend than just "work on your skills"?
    – Philipp
    Mar 27, 2018 at 9:28
  • Tactful? Maybe. Useful? Nope. The market is a pityless master and will school your friend in time. Wait till they ask for your advice.
    – user16226
    Mar 27, 2018 at 9:41
  • @Philipp right off the bat, aesthetically speaking, it's not a book you would see in bookstores. It just looks out of place. Secondly, it reads more like a blog then a book... only it is printed on paper. "Work on skills" wasn't exactly what I had in mind to say, but something along the lines of, maybe "polish your work a bit more and don't think so much about getting it finished so you can make money from it."
    – K Johnson
    Mar 27, 2018 at 20:40

4 Answers 4

  1. While honesty is an admirable trait, I feel the prime "purpose" of friends and family is to offer support, not criticism. People who make it in the world usually have close relations who stand by them without ever doubting them. Even if your friend explicitly asks for an honest judgment, as long as you are not a literary agent or other kind of expert yourself, I would be extremely careful by destoying their hope with a layperson's opinion that might in fact be completely wrong.

  2. You learn writing by writing. If your friend keeps writing they will eventually get better. So don't discourage them by telling them they cannot write, when in fact they probably will learn it if you motivate them. Think of parents and children. Children cannot walk or write or speak a foreign language, when they first attempt it, yet parents praise them for their efforts until they can, because a realistic assessment is not what the learner needs, but support and encouragement.

  3. If you honestly feel that your friends would profit from some honest feedback, for example, because it might help them to learn writing better faster, suggest to them to join a writing group or employ an editor before they publish their works. But make sure you don't say that their writing sucks and they need help to make it acceptable, but rather that it's good but can be made better.

  4. Finally, you can point out a few of the most glaring mistakes. A good practice is to begin with praise, offer one point of criticism, then end in praise. Do not point out all the faults that you see, just the ones that you think your friend might themselves agree with once they notice them (or that maybe they already are aware of themselves). But don't expect anything from your criticism, don't press, and generally remain supportive of their endeavour.

  5. Basically think about what you expect from your friends and family when you really want something and try to make it work. Most people want at least one person who unfailingly believes in them. Give your friends what you wish for them to give to you.

  6. If you are really right and your friend's writing is truly bad, reality will eventually kick in in the form of continued rejections from publishers, low sales of self-published books, and bad reviews from readers. If, on the other hand, your friend is successful, your assessment of their quality doesn't matter. Many bestsellers are badly written.

  • All these points are great. Actually clears up quite a bit. It makes sense that I'm not really the one that should point it out. Point 1) is a good enough reason alone. 2) I can see it being more productive to tell him to just keep writing. Actually, the ideas and content are brilliant, in my mind (it's non-ficiton), but I'm definitely not the target audience. 5) I never thought of that, truly. I can see how the Golden Rule applies to even this. Very insightful answer.
    – K Johnson
    Mar 27, 2018 at 20:49

If they haven't asked me to read it, or tell them what I think, I would do nothing at all. Given any opportunity that qualifies as an "ask", I would be truthful.

I would not pretend to be any more expert than my friend, I'd just be honest about my own reactions:

I did not like the story, it seemed like the same story as XYZ. Or it seemed so predictable it wasn't interesting.

There were parts that made no sense to me, people were too stupid, or there were too convenient lucky breaks, or impossible guesses, or doing things for no good reason that turned out to be insanely lucky. It seemed unnatural or forced or too unrealistic.

The dialogue seemed forced (at specific points), and unrealistic, I don't think anybody would talk like that.

Whatever the flaws are, I am a reader, I have my own emotions and reactions to written material: My friend cannot argue that "you don't feel that" or "you don't think that".

If asked what I think of it, I would point out their problems that way, Here is my reaction to it.

If you are not a fellow writer, I would NOT get into suggesting writing groups, or specific fixes, or whatever.

These rules, btw, are not something I practice HERE, where people ask for specific solutions to problems (and I am a writer qualified to give advice). These rules are for a personal friend you do not want to lose, and do not want to start an argument with about the best way to write. It leaves you an out: If he thinks he writes wonderfully that's fine, his opinion does not have to change yours.

  • Writing is just a hobby of mine, I am by no means qualified to give technical advice. Makes sense to just approach it as a reader... although I don't want to lie about it. Here is my reaction to it seems like a very tactful way to say something hopefully constructive (if) asked about it.
    – K Johnson
    Mar 28, 2018 at 3:59

Further to Mark Baker's comment,

The market is a pityless master and will school your friend in time. Wait till they ask for your advice.

... maybe give them some information about the business of writing -- which may (or, I don't know, may not) suggest they need to find an agent, editor, publisher, and/or to avoid self-publishing.

It needn't be your information, it could be written by someone else -- a blog, a book, a web resource, a video of a talk -- information you agree with, though, which says what you wants to say, conveys what you think is good advice.

People write for different reasons -- e.g. fan fiction just for fun and sociability. Even writing professionally there may be more than one way to market writing and more than one way to write it; so I'd beware of commenting on quality -- especially if I'm not the target audience!


Has he been giving you his work prior to publishing for comment? If he hasn't, volunteer to be a reader. If he has asked you to read and/or accepts you then you should be giving him honest descriptive feedback. Identify the things that bother you, but do not necessarily tell him how to fix it. Generally a good reader points out the: unbelievable, boring, confusing, and awesome bits. The point is that if you can put yourself in a position to give feedback, then it's perfectly normal for you to give it to him; but it is most constructive if it is about a work he is currently working on.

Writing, like all skills, requires practice. WHATEVER YOU DO, do not destroy his practice. It is hard enough for most people to sit down regularly to write. Your goal, if you wish to help, is to inspire incremental improvement. And there is absolutely no reason he shouldn't try to publish a bad book; plenty of "bad books" with "bad writing" are loved and sell so long as there's a market for them. It is possible he knows something you don't, but if we're talking about someone who is serially under-performing and you think you understand why and he is harming himself and/or those around him by spending money he doesn't have, then by all means find a way stop him.

If he hasn't asked for your feedback and doesn't want it, then there is little you will be able to do. You can encourage him to grow, still. If you engage him in conversations about what makes good writing, and those conversations happen to be points of weakness then his natural inclination to learn (if he has one), may allow growth. If you aren't at all interested in writing, then you could quietly set him up on a blind-date with a group of people that happen to write in your area and see what happens. Local writing groups often advertise.

At the end of the day he will be the one that has to change. And your ability to inspire that change and be a catalyst will be directly proportional to how well you can nurture a spark within him to be the best writer he can be. You should be aware that the best writer he can be tomorrow is not going to leaps and bounds beyond the writer he is today. He may need to continue to publish and write a lot in the interim; but if he's getting feedback he'll grow. If he's not getting honest feedback or open to even received it, then his chances at improvement are slim.

  • That's very helpful. Yes, I he did give me and other co-workers a copy (pdf) but more as a gift but not necessarily for feedback. So seems like the best thing to do is encourage to grow and hope that he can learn along the way.
    – K Johnson
    Mar 28, 2018 at 3:46

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