As an author, you’ll occasionally have people asking you to read their manuscript and provide advice. (Whether or not you should do this is a topic unto itself. Some established writers have a blanket policy against it for valid reasons, including the fact that it’s bad business to work for free. Others are happy to do it when time permits, paying forward the help they received as beginners themselves.)
Often the person asking is an aspiring writer. Maybe a younger writer, or maybe a beginning writer—of any age—just learning the basics of the craft. Assuming you’re going to take on the task of reading their work and giving feedback, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Don’t step on dreams.
This is the equivalent of the primary Hippocratic concept, “First, do no harm.” There are experienced writers who feel anything less than ‘brutal honesty’ is somehow beneath them. They think some people simply weren’t born to be writers, and the sooner someone tells these poor schmucks this, the better.
Really? In reality no one actually knows who’s going to eventually—with enough sustained effort—become a decent writer. History is full of late bloomers who didn’t show much early promise. (The Big Sleep, anyone? Watership Down? Or how about Angela’s freaking Ashes—a first book that was published when the author was sixty-six?) And even if they never go on to become successful authors, they still receive the intangible benefit that writing gives everyone who puts pen to paper—the unique feeling of accomplishment in organizing their thoughts and setting them down in print. Some aspiring writers may never find success in publishing (however they happen to define it). But they may still get as much out of it—on a personal level—as a best-selling author. And on the Big Scale of Life, this might even outweigh the benefits of brutal honesty. Wheaton’s Law still applies.
2. Leave them wanting more.
A good question to ponder when helping the new writer: “What single activity is most germane to becoming a better writer?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is writing. Followed closely by reading.)
When my kids were young I signed up to coach my older son’s basketball team, along with one of the other dads. The players on our team were all good kids but were complete beginners. (And my buddy and I weren’t exactly John Wooden either.) We taught the kids basic b-ball skills as best we could, but during and after the games some parents would get down on their kids for not “doing better.” (Which is invariably fruitless. Everyone is doing their best in the moment with the tools they have. Which are not your tools.) In the end, I’d pull the more serious parents aside and bluntly explain the reality that our team was rather less skilled than the other teams, and my real goal for the year was simply that the kids enjoy the experience enough to want to continue playing basketball going forward. Because the only way they’re going to get better is to play more. A lot more. And for that to happen, they’re going to have to want to play.
Artistic skill develops over years, not weeks. This doesn’t mean you can’t get real benefits from a few intensive weeks of writing and study, but most people who do typically have years of practicing their craft behind them. Can you imagine taking a complete non-writer and throwing them into something like Clarion?
So the real objective here is simply to leave them wanting to continue writing.
3. Giving them a fish vs. teaching them to fish.
What’s your overall goal when critiquing an aspiring writer? If it’s “make this specific story better,” then I suggest you take a broader view. Making a beginner’s story stronger is usually pretty simple, as the flaws are generally apparent. (Blatant exposition, unrealistic dialog, over-use of adjectives, inconsistent characters, telling us how a character feels instead of letting their actions reveal it, etc.) If you just line edit the heck out of it, it’ll almost certainly be a stronger story. But will they have learned anything about the craft of writing? (And—if you really do a deep-dive edit—will it even be their story when you’re done with it?)
So consider helping more with overall craft than just working on specific story issues. I remember a friend coming to me with an article he wanted to submit to the local paper. One line he’d written was something on the order of “He was very, very tall.” Instead of simply slashing it and replacing it with “towering” or whatever, it was a great entrée into a discussion of intensifiers. Same deal with multiple descriptors. He was describing a woman who was “… warm, sweet, affectionate, and cheerful.” Instead of just cutting three of the four, I asked for an example of her behavior. He gave me one, and we talked about a way to fit it into the story instead of him just telling us how nice she was.
You want to leave them with interesting things to consider, as you show possible paths to their goal. (As always, you want to help them write their story as best they can, not show them how you’d write it.) So don’t default to only showing what’s “wrong”. Think about it in terms of giving them options, and showing them why one option may be stronger than another. (This is really all about the “why,” right?)
4. Stay within their skillset, while stretching them a little.
I’m a drummer, and occasionally give informal lessons to beginners. I don’t start by sitting down and demonstrating 4-way independence (where each limb is doing something different at the same time). That’ll either frustrate and discourage them or go over their head entirely. Instead I’ll ask them what they would like to be able to play on the drums, and I’ll give them something relevant to work on that they can’t quite do perfectly yet, but which is within their grasp.
Closer to home, you probably don’t want to overload your beginning writer with a rundown of the nuanced differences between limited third-person, objective third-person, and omniscient third-person points-of-view. Find out what they wish to accomplish with their story, and try to help them get there with understandable advice that speaks to their current skillset. Example: If they’re using close third and are unsure about the mechanics, they can probably benefit from something like, “It might help the reader feel grounded if you stay in one character’s head throughout the entire scene or chapter.”
5. Catch them doing something right.
This goes back to the concept of leaving them motivated to continue writing. It doesn’t mean being a cheerleader. It means striving to find some aspect of their work they honestly did well. If not in execution, then in concept. It could be a character that—at least at times—feels real and unique. It could be an interesting plot twist. It could be a bit of dialog that rings true. It could simply be a well-described breakfast at a funky little diner. Let them know you thought it was well done, and why. Encourage them to apply this technique to other parts of the story, if applicable.
Writers have strong and weak points. That’s universal. What’s not so universal—especially with beginners—is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. So do them a favor and let them know what they do well. If they’re wise enough to take it to heart and capitalize on it, it can really benefit their writing going forward.
And of course, hearing positive feedback about some aspect of their writing will only motivate them to keep trying. And that—sustained effort—is probably the biggest precursor to success of all.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.