How Honest Are You?

Okay, say your mom/dad/sister/brother/cousin/aunt/uncle—you get the picture—hands you their newly finished manuscript to read. They’ve toiled and slaved over it for months, they put heart and soul into it. It’s their baby. You read it and it’s okay but doesn’t blow your mind. You’ve read better, you might even have read worse. Or worse case scenario it sucks to high heaven and you have to force yourself through to the end. (That’s if you can make it through without ripping out your hair.)

Do you know where this is going?

Would you be able to truthfully own up to the fact that it really wasn’t your cup of tea or would you be like those family members from American Idol who tell their loved ones how great they are when their singing truly sucks?

I’ve been thinking about this since having sent one of my manuscripts to someone recently, wondering if it’s not putting this person in an awkward position.

I’ve never critiqued any one’s work before. To be quite truthful I don’t know if I could be 100% honest if I didn’t like it at all, and maybe I’d try to talk myself into liking it more than I did especially if it was written by a family member.

I guess I’m wondering how people who offer critiques can do so honestly without fear of crushing someone’s dream?

I have to think that if the person in question were another writer looking for honest feedback it would be much easier than someone who was just hoping to have some validation for their work.

For those who have critiqued another’s work are you brutally honest if you just don’t like the story or do you sprinkle dollops of praise in with the criticism? If the person just couldn’t write worth beans would you discourage them from writing at all? And yet, what if the writing is good but the story wasn’t your kind of story? We’ve all come across those books. Does the fact that I don’t like something mean it shouldn’t be published?

Sorry for the many questions. Just a few things I’ve been mulling over in my mind. I wouldn’t mind hearing what your thoughts are on this.

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  1. Interesting question and not an easy one to answer, but I’ll give you my two cents, abridged version.

    True critiques are honest, period. They point out the flaws in addition to the strengths. They are void of emotion and based “just on the facts.” Your responsibility as the one giving the critique is simply to be honest and unbiased in your feedback.

    The problem comes when / if you write your response taking into consideration the writer’s feelings and / or expectations. That is when you muddy up the waters, so to speak, because you are no longer responding from an honest place, but a censored one designed to anticipate their interpretation of your words.

    No matter how tactfully you critique someone’s work, if they are only looking for validation, any flaw you point out will hurt their feelings. Most likely anything less than “I loved it!” will hurt their feelings.

    However, if that person is looking to improve their skills and / or story, they will welcome honest feedback and advice. They will soak it up, apply it and go through the whole thing again and again until they reach their desired skill level or story.

    With my writing buddies (and certain clients), I ask upfront: What are you really wanting from me here? You’d be surprised how often they’ll say, “I just want to know if it’s any ‘good’.” And that’s your queue they’re wanting validation. Then you can choose to either respond with a true critique or a personalized critique.

    Of course, I’ve left out a whole slew of variables but I didn’t want to monopolize the comments .

    Great topic! I’m sure there’s going to be some really good responses to this one.

    • Laura, this month I joined an online picture books critique group, the first one ever for me. It has only a few members and apparently not all of them are actively participating, so it’s not very busy. I have not submitted anything of my own work yet but I’ve added my thoughts to what a few of the others have offered up for critique. I feel it’s a tricky thing when you don’t know how you may come across to others who don’t know you.

      I admit that I have wanted to be validated in my writing, still do. That may come from not being absolutely sure yet about how ‘good’ my writing really is, I suppose. And I want to share the stories I had fun with. When I read another writer’s work I tend to hyper focus on the things that I see as needing a tweak or change – and I carefully make my suggestions with the sincere hope that the writer is more able to handle the critique than I might yet be. :) I also let them know if I love the story, but if I have my doubts about the story in general I don’t say anything since I’m not the only one who reads it. Maybe that is not right of me, but I’m still learning and I really don’t want to hurt anyone. Also, I’ve yet to be able to see how it could be fixed and I keep in mind that maybe it’s just not of interest to me. Some stories I just don’t understand where they’re coming from so it wouldn’t seem right to say that .. or would it? As I said, I’m still learning.

      Personally, I do want and need to grow and learn. One thing I am working on is to swallow my pride (and feelings of “but this is my baby!”) and allow myself to learn from suggestions of others more experienced.

      • Sorry these comments are messed up!
        I know where you’re coming from, Lynn. I’m wondering, however, if it wouldn’t become easier with time. I’m thinking that the people critiquing your work would also have to be writers whose work you respect.

        I think constructive criticism really has it’s place and if we want to improve our writing we sometimes just have to get over ourselves and look at it in terms of how can I make this story the best possible?

    • Thanks for your input, Leah. You always give great answers. I think any writer who is looking to improve their work, and I think we all can improve, should look forward to a honest critique. How else will our work improve? Knowing just what the person wants in a critique would definitely let us know what type of feedback they’re looking for. That might be something for both parties to know up front.

  2. For the past three years, I have exchanged 500 to 600-word passages with two writing friends each Monday and Thursday. Each of us are writing novels, so we can’t say if the entire story works until it’s done. However, we’ve come to learn a lot about critiquing someone else’s work.

    Honesty is the way to go. The writer wants to write, so providing false information is useless. However, there is a way to go about it.

    Obviously, spelling and grammar mistates are facts. You don’t get an opinion on whether they’re right or wrong. Freind is wrong in the Canadian, British and American English dictionaries. There are options, of course, but the writer must decide which dictionary they’re going to use and stick with it.

    Other aspects of a story are subject to opinion. What may be perfect for one reader may be boring for another. Suggestions are what we offer.

    If, for example, characters need fleshing out or the dialogue needs improving, suggest how this can be done. To simply say it doesn’t work, isn’t good enough. Recommend a good book, so they can improve on that particular aspect of writing. If it is something simple, such as proper punctuation, let them know how it’s done.

    A good way to start a critique is stating what works (and why, if you can) and what doesn’t work and how it may be improved.

    Always end with: These are only suggestions. Others may have other opinions. In the end, it is your story and you have the final say.

    If the person can’t write for beans, yet they really want to write, suggest a few good books and tell them, “This is a good start. By reading about writing, you’ll only improve.”

    Terrible writers can turn into good writers if they truly want to learn. They get what they put into it. Thankfully, no one has read the stories I wrote 25 years ago or they may thing I’m a terrible writer.

    If you don’t like it, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published. I believe The Road is terrible, a book to be used only as a doorstop or kindling for the fire, but many loved it.

    • Goods suggestions, Diane. Hopefully anyone looking for a critique has some sort of writing skills so that we can pick out some positive things along the way.

      I like your suggestions,too, and it sounds much more constructive than critical.

      I’m not sure that terrible can always turn into good, but surely improvements can be made. Can the terrible writer get their work up to snuff and ready for an editor to accept it? I don’t know.

      Thanks for your opinion! Some really great advice here.

  3. do you sprinkle dollops of praise in with the criticism?

    I look back on my very first pieces of writing that were critiqued. They were horribly written yet no one told me so. They pointed out the flaws and said “great piece”. Now I know they were lying about the “great” part, but had they told me it sucked, I might not have had the confidence to continue my journey.

    • Ah you’re a sprinkler…yeah, I think sprinkling is a good place to start!

      You’re right, Tricia, the wrong kind of feedback at the wrong time could end up discouraging people whose work would definitely go on to be published such as yours! And that would be a shame.

      We all improve, but having talent doesn’t mean we don’t have to work to improve and some people don’t understand that. They think their first attempts are as good as it’s gong to get.

  4. I’ve been critiquing other mss for many years and it is a delicate situation. Or it can be. That’s why I prefer working with writers who are accustom to having their work critiqued. They know what to expect. Also, my motto is if you can’t find anything nice to say, don’t speak. I make a point of commenting on as many of the good points of the ms as I do on the rough spots. I think it’s all about respect. I remind the writer that it’s OMHO. They are allowed to consider or reject anything I suggest. The object is to be helpful not detrimental.

    • I’m sure that the more our work is critiqued, the tougher we become. Hurt feelings does nothing to help a writer out and it’s best not to let those hurt feeling get in the way.

      Being helpful–yes, that’s what it’s all about.

  5. Having felt the deep disappointment that an early critique, and even a later one, can bring, I would not want to be the one to critique a family member’s manuscript. Yet, often, without the family member, some writers would have no one.

    From another perspective, most family members would not be qualified to offer a real critique, not knowing what the issues are. This unknowing reader might not like the MS and not know why or how it could be fixed.

    • That’s true, carol Ann, the person doing the critiquing should be qualified to do it, hopefully another writer. Perhaps you need to find a critique group that will work with you, Carol Ann? The object is for a critique to help not hinder.

  6. I’ve been in a similar situation…my best friend of 40 years’ husband sent snippets of his manuscript (a kids’ book) via e-mail to me, and other friends and family to critique. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great…I wanted to be careful not to discourage him, because he had not graduated from high school, and had worked to earn his GED some 25 years later. I made suggestions to improve it…he did eventually self-publish it. He sent me an electronic version of the book, but I confess to not opening it…


  7. syr ruus

     /  February 22, 2011

    As the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia says: “Good writing is good writing period.” If you make suggestions as to how you think a piece of writing might be improved,that can only be a good thing!

    • And hopefully, those suggestions actually have merit. Which goes back to what was mentioned earlier about having someone who is qualified to actually critique your work. When I worked on a story this summer with my daughter(first time ever for something like that) our objective was to make the story the best that it could be. I do think we accomplished that.

  8. You have much good advice here already, so I’ll just tell you how we handle it in my family.

    Three of my sons are teachers and so are their wives. One son teaches literature, his wife is a poet and teaches creative writing. Only one d-in-l has read my novel (not the poet) … and she requested to do this only AFTER I felt it was publish-ready. Thankfully, she loved it. But my point is that my family members think it’s risky business to critique another family member’s work.

    At the very least, you have to know that the family member honestly wants to know how to improve their work, not just get approval. Still, there will be disappointment if “I loved it.” isn’t part of the response.

    • You’re right, Linda! I could see that even though we might be wanting to know how to improve the story there probably would be a bit of disappointment there is they didn’t “love it.” Of course we want people to like the story that we slaved over, that’s only natural I suspect, and we are all only human.

  9. I haven’t critiqued the work of family members, but I’ve had to do so for very close friends, and it is a tricky situation. In at least one case, I was confident the friend was a gifted writer, but was highly disappointed in the actual manuscript I received.

    I don’t think it’s *ever* okay to “crush someone’s dreams”. You can give helpful feedback about what you thought didn’t work (along with many kind comments about what did), but it is not your place to tell the person that they shouldn’t write or should give up now. I disagree that a terrible writer can become a good one with practice, because I do think there is some inherent talent involved. But as you pointed out, Laura, something you think is terrible might be something I’d love, and vice-versa. I think it’s important to avoid any kind of sweeping judgement and just concentrate on evaluating the actual work.

    It’s also important to know what the person is looking for in a critique. Someone mentioned spelling and grammar–to me, that’s copy-editing, and I have someone specific who looks after that for me. From the rest of my readers, I want to know what they thought of the story. Did they believe in the characters? Were the characters consistent? Were they likeable? Did the story engage and entertain, etc?

    No matter how poorly executed the novel, I find it’s always possible to find *something* to praise. Maybe the settings were incredible, or the dialogue was strong, or a character was particularly realistic. Maybe a passage was funny or touching. There’s always something. But if the book needs a lot of work and you gloss over that fact, you’re not doing the writer any favors. Since it’s a family member, ask how tough they want you to be. You have the advantage of knowing how sensitive/touchy they are, and will be able to react accordingly. You could say, “I really enjoyed your book, but I did notice a couple of things that could be stronger with some work/rewriting. Let me know if you would like my help with those.”

    Just MOHO. :) Thanks for the post! Great topic. It obviously struck a chord with a lot of people.

    • Great response, Holly and you maker some excellent points.

      I tend to agree with you that a writer has to start out with some kind of talent. I’m sure there are folks out there who would never get “good” just as there are people out there who can’t play musical instruments or sing.

      True to say, that likely most people can improve their basic writing skills it they wish to but that doesn’t ensure publication by no means.

  10. Hm, this is a very tricky issue!
    I am usually a somewhat brutally honest person, but when it comes to something someone created-Story, poem, painting, meal, etc-I try to be more tactful.

    But if they’re looking for tips, then I give them, in a constructive and positive manner.

    • This is a tricky issue, Pauline. I certainly take you for someone who is brutally honest and that’s something we all need to be at times. It is a bit different with something we’ve created, though and as an artist you would understand that of course. The offering of tips is good if the person wants tips. There is always someone out there who know more than we do.

  11. Wow! That’s a lot of writing in posts today. I hope mine doesn’t get lost in the mix. I have finished reading Bitter, Sweet, and was wondering which venue I’d use to tell you how I liked it. Facebook — in a comment? Facebook — in a message? Email? And then I decided to go to your blog — and look at the topic.

    Of course, I’m biased. How could I not be — having come to know you and your gentle nature over the months. But I think you can tell if someone’s being honest if they give you specifics. Her are a few of mine.

    Bitter, Sweet is a good book. A book that surprised me — when things got so tense with Jesse and the gun at the end. I think it’s a perfect YA book — dealing with the issues every child of that age is dealing with — separation from/death of the parent and personal independence.

    Its atmosphere is very much of the times, and you have put yourself into the head of Pru, so her voice comes out clearly.

    The only thing I found a bit odd was, very late in the book (about two-thirds through — the narrative changed to the third person. After that, it went back and forth, and that worked fine. It was just abrupt, the first time it happened, and I felt the whole story could still have been told through Pru’s eyes and words.

    Just a thought. Maybe I missed the point there.

    Well done, Laura. You deserve all the praise you’ve received. Lap it up.

    • Thanks so much, Hilary. To be honest, and I’m sure you’ve been here, it’s a bit weird and awkward when you know someone is reading your book.Awkward not only for the writer, but for the reader as well.

      I appreciate your honesty when you said you thought it odd that the narrative shifted so far into the book, but I think if you check back to the beginning you’ll see that the first two chapters were actually written in third person. The shift into first person came on the third chapter when Pru begins telling about her mother’s death.

      I debated whether or not to point this out, but then decided that heck yes, I was going to be honest..LOL! This doesn’t mean that you’re not entitled to your opinion. Seriously, I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to mention it.

      I’ve read other books that shift back and forth between third and first, but I think most don’t. I blame my not wanting to do things the conventional way on the years I spent writing stories for literary magazines where it sometimes seems that anything goes. (Not that my work was ever that far out there.)

      You picked the right time to offer this up. :) Thanks so much for your comment.

      • And of course you should encourage me to use the spell checker for typos too. I always hit send before proofing – bad Tracy!!!

  12. There are so many things I’ve read that I really wish were never published! When I am reviewing, I try to be constructive in my comments, realizing that the person may not be using my preferred writing style or covering a topic I care about. If something needs serious help, I usually give them a soft-approach but STRONGLY encourage them to seek other opinions from people I know will deliver the truth.

    When I receive comments, I usually appreciate them greatly, unless the person is attacking my personal style, which I honestly can’t change.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not a professional writer, but I do edit professional publications for me work, which tend to be more technical in nature and I’m usually fact checking, not editing for style.

    • And it would be even better if I replied to the correct comment. Oh Laura, so sorry I messed up your neatly organized comments today. Feel free to delete my mistakes!!!

      • Not to worry! It’s okay to jump in any place, Tracy..LOL!

        It’s aways good to get as many opinions as possible. I guess most people believe in going with a soft approach. No fun hurting people’s feelings.

  13. This can be such a difficult situation. In most cases family members and good friends aren’t the best people to ask for a critique. They usually want to like the story before they begin reading, so their responses aren’t unbiased. How they relate to the person will also influence how they provide their response. (Sometimes we don’t try to be as tactful when sharing our reaction with a loved one as with a stranger.) Often they have no writing expertise so, depending on what we want out of the critique, we may be disappointed by a less than helpful response. If such people are the only ones physically available, it might be better to use online critique forums. I know I want total honesty when I ask an opinion, but I also try to be specific in what I need critiqued.

    That being said, if we’re stuck in your scenario, I really like Storyteller’s suggested response: “I really enjoyed your book, but I did notice a couple of things that could be stronger with some work/rewriting. Let me know if you would like my help with those.” Since it’s likely the person isn’t a seasoned writer, gentleness is a must. I don’t recommend lying, however well-meaning, but there’s almost always something you can find to praise, however minor, that is still true.

    What a great discussion this is creating, Laura!

    • Thank, Carol! being object can sometimes be a stickler, and as you pointed out I think we sometimes rally want to like something if it was written by a family member. Which makes it trickier for the writer who ends up wondering if the person can truly be object.

      Probably the bottom line is unless you really have to , don’t ask a family member or close friend to critique your work.

  14. I receive a lot of manuscripts from aspiring young adults. Parents even send them to me to review. I NEVER want to squash an aspiring young adult writer. Now, that being said, I also don’t want them to send it out to a publisher if it isn’t ready. Many of them have GREAT story lines, but they are lost in vagueness and poor sentence structure. I focus on the story and how important it is to get that right, then I urge them to take writing courses. If they are that serious about it then they will learn and grow with their stories. So, yes, honesty with a delicate hand is important.

    • Ciara, my first thought was it must be wonderful to read works that young people have written, and to offer your advice to them and direction. You certainly wouldn’t want to discourage then so early on. They are the writers of the future.

  15. Speaking for myself, I’d probably feel a lot more defensive of my work if family members critiqued it. Maybe because they are so close to me on an emotional level it will be hard to accept their opinion/s as objective and not personal.

    I’d rather have honest, unbiased critique than finding out years later that the “soft touch” didn’t help me to improve my skill – which is what happened to me. But, of course, there are nice ways to go about giving honest opinions so that one doesn’t discourage the writer. I don’t think it’s an easy job, though. :)


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