Critiquing, While Keeping Your Friends

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I was recently asked to look over a friend’s screenplay and offer my opinion. I’ve done reviews before, and I’ve asked others to review my own work. It is a dreadful exercise, one designed to test friendships, and not all friendships will survive.

We are a society encouraged to be kind to one another (thanks Ellen) and sometimes we are mutually aware that our words are empty platitudes. It is difficult to know when we can safely cross the line from compliment to truth.

As a writer, it is wonderful to know just how powerful words can be. Improperly formed criticisms can ruin evenings, or create relationship rifts. Well crafted feedback can save someone from embarrassment or give course correction to those possibly unaware they were even lost.

Truth is dangerous. Raw truth is toxic. The whole truth is rarely forgivable.

How do you critique your friend’s writing without ruining your friendship?

As the writer:

Don’t get defensive.

Unless they ask a question, don’t counter their opinions and suggestions; let them say what they have to say. This is hard for them too, so don’t make them regret helping you.

If you only want to get feedback on specific elements, then tell them that beforehand. If you’re on your final draft and only want to know about overlooked spelling errors, say so. It gets your reader off the hook of telling you about things they dislike that you never intend to change.

Don’t put the reader on the spot. People often lose confidence in person and can give better, well-written responses over email. Let them write out all the good and bad in private. Then you can read their feedback in private and no one needs to discuss anything in person.

Be appreciative. Even if your friend hated your work, they spent time reading it and writing feedback. Thank them for their time.

As the reader:

Be specific. Also, ask the writer what they specifically need help with. Critiques that never move beyond generalities don’t help the writer, but jumping into things you hated when they only wanted to know if you liked the ending may sour the whole endeavor.

Do add some compliments. Perhaps it’s not in your nature; you are the rare breed that can’t say nice things. Find something good to say. Everyone needs encouragement, and this is your friend after all.

Do add negatives. Even if this is greatest work of literature ever, writers want to improve. To do so, they need people to disagree with their words and offer new viewpoints. As humans we struggle to believe pure positivity; when someone genuinely likes our creations, we assume they’re lying. The negatives will give the positives sincerity.

Don’t avoid the review. If you hated every single word and question your friend’s sanity after reading their work, you still promised to give them feedback. Bite the bullet and do it. Don’t forget that you can put it all in an email if you need to avoid in person discussion.

Give timely feedback. They are waiting on you.

Tread carefully. Start with softballs, maybe even splitting your feedback into easy fixes and huge hurdles. Maybe the very premise of the story is awful, but you know telling them that is basically setting the entire thing on fire. Choose to offer commentary on character development instead, or one scene that just needs a little boost. If you can see them getting defensive about something, move on. Keep the critique productive and don’t turn it into an argument.

I am planning on giving a questionnaire to my beta readers, an aid in guiding the critique, which will help us both. Along with that, I will encourage them to be honest and unafraid. I, in turn, will promise to receive their feedback with respect and gratitude. I’ll also give them a link to this blog. I suggest you do as well. It’s nice to have friends. We should all aim to keep them. We do need someone to spend time with when we periodically emerge from our writer caves.

Thank you so much for reading. Please follow, subscribe, and comment.

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