Ever Been Asked to Do This? If So, How’d That Work Out for You? ;)

I got an email from a reader recently, spurred by one of my newsletter pieces (the “Appetizer” course of THIS issue). It’s a subject a bit different from the usual commercial freelancing fare on the blog, but thought it was worth running, given that it’s something any reasonably experienced commercial writer has no doubt encountered—whether a scenario like hers or one like mine.

She wrote:

Several years ago, a writing conference director sent an email inviting all to view the new conference website and let him know what we thought. I followed the link, and immediately saw a word had been left out of the first sentence. A few sentences below, the wrong verb tense had been used.

I emailed and suggested he might want to correct the mistakes. His reply? A glib comment about being in a hurry and no one else would catch the mistakes. Really? I had served on faculty for this conference a number of years so it wasn’t like I was unknown to the director. The next year, I was not asked back to teach at the conference and the director no longer speaks to me.

I had a similar experience with someone who was starting an editing service. He invited comments about his new website. In the first sentence on the site, he used the wrong verb tense. Another error, a wrong/mistaken use of a noun, was in the next paragraph. I emailed him, mentioning the errors.

His response: “Yeah, I asked my wife, and she said it supposed to be that way so I’m going with what she said.” Really? A startup editor is going with grammar errors on his editing site to please the wife? Needless to say, his editing business never got off the ground! He became the owner of a small press instead, which consistently publishes books with grammatical errors. No surprise there. And he ignores me when we happen to be at the same writing conferences.

What I’ve learned: Even when people invite critique, they really don’t want critique. They want validation for what they’ve done, whether correct or not, and view anything else as personal criticism. Folks are interesting!

In response, I shared a story of my own:

Reminds me of a lovely woman for whom I wrote a column many years ago, for her local monthly rag. A few years after I stopped writing for her, but while we still considered each other friends, she asked me to critique a novel she was working on. I said I would be happy to take a look, though quickly realized what a bind I had put myself in.

It wasn’t just bad, it was really, really bad. Incredibly clichéd, poorly written, poor character development, uninteresting, and most of it no better than a seventh grader’s essay. After getting her assurance that she really did want me to be honest, I was. I wasn’t brutal, but I made it clear I thought it needed a lot of work to get it to a viable stage.

She thanked me profusely for being honest, going on and on about how much she appreciated the input and feedback, and…I never heard from her ever again. Remember, we were far better than acquaintances, though perhaps less than good buddies, and we talked pretty regularly. But after that, we never talked again. So I hear you!

Ever been asked for feedback from a writer or friend?

How did you handle it?

If the writing wasn’t very good, and you were honest, how did they receive your feedback?

Any suggestions for dealing with situations like this?

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24 replies
  1. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    > Even when people invite critique, they really don’t want critique. They want validation for what they’ve done, whether correct or not, and view anything else as personal criticism.

    So much truth in this. Not everyone, of course, but quite a lot.

    There was a time when I’d get requests to look at someone’s writing or design. Like you, Peter, I wasn’t brutal, but I made it clear where I thought there were problems.

    In so many cases, they seemed stunned or didn’t handle it well. They probably thought their work was pretty good, thus the reason to send it at that point. And so validation was probably the real goal.

    What I realized is that this was happening most with beginners. They were already on shaky ground. And it makes sense… they’re just starting out and have often gone from being employee to self-employed. While exciting, it’s also overwhelming. There’s lots of doubt about what to do and their ability to do it.

    So I think when some are asking for a critique, they don’t even realize that what they really want/need is validation. How to properly give a critique is difficult because often you don’t know the back-story, where they’re at, or how they’re feeling.

    They’ll say they want the complete truth and can handle it, and they believe they can. But once they see the comments, it’s tough to digest and may, in fact, be interpreted as a personal criticism.

    I do recall one instance with someone who didn’t seem to like having a totally honest critique. I asked, “How are you going to respond when a client is critiquing your work? Because I can guarantee you there are clients out there who will be absolutely brutal if they don’t like something, and will have no problem being that way since they’re paying for your services and their job might be on the line.”

    A possible solution if you’re in this position is to tackle multiple problems one at a time rather than what might be a page or two of notes to be dealt with. Let the person digest and fix one issue before bringing up the next. It might help it feel not so overwhelming.

  2. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    And this explains why I no longer offer editing services. 😉 I did early in my freelancing career and hated dealing with the fallout. The editing I did was for people I did not know. And I still hated it. I cannot imagine dealing with that on a personal level.

    I have on occasion written to a writer or publication, saying I was extending a professional courtesy to let them know I noticed a typo. Typo puts the blame on flying fingers instead of a lack of knowledge. But when you’re asked directly, that’s tough.

    I’d lead with praise of the good parts (although that sounds challenging in your situation, Peter). 😉 Bottom line, I think when it’s more personal, it’s tough to win. Lori shared a story in a writer’s forum. Part of my response was: Be prepared to lose a connection. 😉

  3. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Mike and Cathy, for your insightful (big surprise) comments. Mike, I think you’re dead-on in your assessment.

    With beginners, it is about validation, and I can understand the mentality (heck, we’ve all been there at some point, and to some extent). You’re looking for shortcuts. You want whatever writing you’re pursuing to not be nearly as hard as people make it out to be, and if someone gives you good feedback, you can say, “Heck, this isn’t that hard; I can absolutely make a go of this.” But, if they don’t, now you’re looking at a much longer haul.

    @Cathy: Yes, if you reach out proactively to let someone know about a typo you’ve found, there’s no attachment on your part to a particular reaction. But if someone reaches out to you, it’s far tougher. I guess it’s just a matter of understanding exactly what it IS they’re seeking, and no, in most cases, it’s not an honest assessment.

    And from time to time, I’ve run across those who do seem genuinely glad to get the feedback, and keep saying how valuable it is. With folks like that, no matter how modest their first efforts are (within reason…), I’m far more optimistic about their chances in the business.

  4. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Although my writing is primarily fiction writing, I’m interested in other kinds of writing. I belong to several fiction writing groups, most with critique sections. These groups have written guidelines on what to and what not to critique — and how to do it. Let me suggest:

    First, start out with a general positive comment on the entire work.

    Second state comments will be made on the following parts: the entire piece, chapters or other subsections, and a line-by-line. The line-by-line may include word usage.

    In the general comments, again start out with a positive comment about the entire work. Then suggest places where the writer may want to make changes.

    Then move on to the structure of the piece. Start out with a positive comment about the structure, then again, make some suggestions. Either about the reordering of sections, deletion or enhancement of others.

    Then, move on to the line-by-line. Here also, start out with a positive comment. Then, go to suggesting modifications. Word changes, overuse of particular words, breaking it up into smaller paragraphs, etc.

    End by restating the comments here are your opinion and should be taken as such. The writer can: read them and use them, read them and modify the ones that resonate, read them and ignore them, or use them to line their hamster cage. The writing belongs to the author, who has the final say about it. You hope your comments are taken in the spirit of making the work better.

    If you don’t know the writer well, it may be best to send them how you do a critique, what you cover, and what it entails.

    If the work needs many revisions, you may only want to address one or two of these portions at a time. Or you could suggest the writer read more about whichever type of writing you are commenting on. It depends on the writer and your relationship with them. Another suggestion you may want to add is to read the comments, put them away for a day or two, then go back and reread them. I know many authors who do this. Even I do it on occasion.

    Remember, some people won’t take any kind of criticism except for positive comments, no matter how they’re put. Just some thoughts from a fiction writer.

  5. Jake Poinier
    Jake Poinier says:

    I’ll consider myself lucky that I really haven’t had a novelist friend like yours ask me such a thing. The closest has been help with resumes and cover letters. (I generally avoid friends-and-family projects.)

    But, on a related note, I did have a client way back who’d written his own brochure. After he hated my revised version, the 40-watt bulb went off in my head that he had actually wanted a rubber stamp. He paid me, we parted somewhat amicably, but never worked together again. Side note: He was a physician, which I have often found to be a difficult client category!

  6. Elaine Eldridge
    Elaine Eldridge says:

    I warn potential substantive editing clients that my marginal comments will include plenty of “What about this?” “What about that?” “What about this and that?” comments. Most of them are pros who slog through the suggestions and corrections with nary a whimper. I’ve had a few who think I’ll only rearrange a few commas, but fortunately a very few. One possible way to dissuade writers who seek only validation is to send them a few sample pages, gratis–with any luck they’ll disappear.

  7. Sally
    Sally says:

    I do freelance book editing and many of my clients are first-time writers who feel their book is worthy of being on the best seller list. I tell them I understand that writing the first book is like birthing your first child, so they are very fragile, but if they really want a best seller, I have a list of things they need to work on. I also tell them to read over all my comments, get mad, refuse to communicate with me for a while, and then get to work and get back in communication because we are ready to make them successful. And that’s just about the way it works!

  8. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all!

    @Barbara: Thanks for the detailed instructions. Not sure I’d want to undertake that involved a process (unless I was being paid!). Though I’m curious how you’d deal with a book that really was as bad as the one I was asked to offer feedback on. Doesn’t there come a point at which you stop your normal process, especially when you really can’t find much positive to say about it—”There sure are a lot of words!” Or some deliberately double-sided comment like, “It was a very entertaining!” 🙂

    Funny story, Jake – but would he have been happy to pay you to do nothing but say, “It looks great!”? Maybe so, and if so, I want some gigs like that. A new and growing direction: “Get paid to do little work, and just rubber-stamp the writing of egotistical medical professionals!” 😉

    Elaine, sounds like you’ve been fortunate to work with serious folks who truly DO want some substantive feedback, not just validation. But when it’s a friend, and couched as a favor (as mine was), it’s a bit of a minefield…

    Love your approach, Sally! You’ve clearly been through this process many times, and how great to be able to tell the writer exactly how they’re going to react to your feedback. So, when they do, they end up reacting more to the process than to you. Brilliant!

  9. Lori
    Lori says:

    Oh, I have one for you, Peter. I was asked not by a friend, but by an editor I worked with in the past. I’d reconnected with her when I saw she’d moved from one magazine to another. I extended the invitation to catch up.

    She was open to it. This is weird in itself as she never had time before. So I thought the move must have been a good one.

    She wrote to say what she’d been doing — she’d edited a book for her friend. And she offered to send me a copy. I said sure. It was only after I wrote to thank her for sending it that she said “Would you review it for me? Just put your review up on Amazon.”

    I felt a bit trapped, but she’s an editor. How bad could it be?

    Let me tell you how bad — I couldn’t finish the first chapter. It wasn’t the story — the story was quite compelling. It was the gawd-awful editing. Really, REALLY bad editing. Sentences repeated. Words spelled incorrectly. Honestly, this thing should never have been published in the state it’s in.

    I haven’t finished it. I haven’t reviewed it. I haven’t written back to her at all. I can’t. I. Just. Can’t.

    How I’m handling it — I’m doing nothing. I’m not reviewing it. Ever. I’m not telling her privately it needs some work. I’m not even going to admit to reading any single part of it to her. I’m taking the Fifth. It’s the chicken-shit way, and I’m fine with that.

    This is a book already in print. Nothing I say now would matter one iota anyway. For that reason, my honest opinion wouldn’t help. It’s like telling someone after their wedding and reception that it was really a lousy time. There’s no fixing it. You just keep your clam trap shut at that point.

    However, I have been honest with clients when necessary (and yes, with friends who’ve hired me to edit for them). How thorough a review you give depends on the end goal. For instance, if a client wants you to review website content (he did) and he’s trying to attract business, that’s going to be a pretty comprehensive review (it was). If a friend wants you to look over their story they wrote for their mother’s birthday, that’s someone looking for validation. That review is going to be light on corrections, and corrections are going to be reframed as suggestions.

    For my friend whose book manuscript I’ve just edited (and getting paid for), that’s a line-item review and suggestions on where content is missing.

    It’s like treading on a minefield, isn’t it? 🙂

  10. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    I just went through a critique/total annihilation of a query letter that I submitted in a class in order to get critique.

    After reading the critique and after several deep breaths, I wrote back to the editor and *thanked him* for taking the time to do such a complete evaluation. Doesn’t mean I don’t want challenge him to a duel (wet noodles at dawn), doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt . . . but the second draft of the query letter is so much better.

    Thank you, Mr. Editor.

  11. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    If, what you’ve been given to edit/critique, is that bad, then I suggest the following.

    First, pick out the top three things that need work. For instance: too many sentences starting with pronouns, or an over abundance of pronouns; too much purple prose (excessive description); no transition sentences. Then, rewrite a couple of paragraphs to minimize these flaws. Send it back saying you noted many places in the manuscript where these things happen. Please go through the manuscript and fix them.

    When you get the manuscript back, there may be a new set of problems. Repeat the procedure.

    When you have a “clean” manuscript or document, then proceed with the edit/critique.

    There is a chance that after the author receives the first set of comments, they may not resend it. And if they do, you have the option to continue the process until you consider the manuscript worth editing. Or, you may conclude it needs more work before it’s ready to edit. Let the author know this.

    I used this procedure for someone I edited a novel for and it’s now been sent out for publication.

    But this, like the last comment of mine, depends on how much time you’re willing to spend on this person. In my case, she was, and still is, a friend. Only you know how much work you want to put in. Take care, Barb

  12. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great story, Lori, and I’d have been a chicken-shit right alongside of you. In a perverse sort of way, it’s really the most humane strategy, though you sort of feel guilty about all the manuscripts she’s likely to ruin in the future. Course, it makes you wonder if the manuscript (given that you thought it was compelling) was actually better before she got ahold of it.

    Good lesson, Leslie! Not sure what generation you’re in, but good for you. You swallowed the bitter pill, took the coaching, and now, no doubt feel a lot more confident about your skills in the query-letter-writing arena.

    Digressing for a moment, I suspect a lot of millennials—many of them who got used to constant, unwarranted praise as children—struggle with critiques and feedback in any arena. After all, since they “excelled” at everything else they’ve done in their lives (they wouldn’t have been praised if they hadn’t excelled, right?), a seriously negative critique is likely to tilt their world off its axis. But, those truly good at ANYthing right out of the gate—or even early on—are few and far between.

    And yes, Barb, I agree that that’s probably a good strategy, but even had I known to do that way back then, I’m not sure, in good conscience, I could have. It would have been, in essence, saying, “If you do these things, it’ll be a lot better,” but I’m mighty certain it wouldn’t have been. Truly honest advice would have been something like, “Take 15-20-page stacks, roll them up, put string around them, stack them by your fireplace, and use them for kindling in the winter.” 😉 I’m really bad…

  13. Jake Poinier
    Jake Poinier says:

    Peter, I will let you know when I find the mother lode of rubber-stamp, pay-for-praise clients!

    This part of your comment to Lori caught my eye: “though you sort of feel guilty about all the manuscripts she’s likely to ruin in the future.” Back in my magazine-editor days, I got burned by more than my share of freelancers who had fantastic clips…and then turned out to be talentless or lazy. I *definitely* felt guilty about making their stories work—at which point they’d have my clip in their portfolio to sucker some other editor. I reckon that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to get editors to give new folks a chance: You’re taking a risk that someone’s been edited well but can’t deliver for you. Same thing with clients who’ve been burned.

  14. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great point, Jake! I’m not that much a part of the professional editing (as a profession) world, so that never occurred to me—that someone’s clips might just be a far cry from the original state in which they arrived at the editor.

    And yes, please do keep an eye out for that “no-work work”… 😉

  15. Chris
    Chris says:

    Further to Jake’s point, I’ve seen this one cut both ways. I write primarily for colleges and universities. For a while I was on a listserv of university editors and marcom folks, who as a group are the about the nicest people to work with on the planet. But from seeing their conversations, I learned what a lot of them thought of most freelance writers. Not much it turned out. As Jake noted, almost every one of them had been burned at some point by an irresponsible or sloppy freelancer. Given that, I certainly couldn’t blame them for being jaundiced, and it helped me realize that in first contacts with potential clients I was going to be viewed warily, as the sins of freelancers past were visited upon me.

    On the other hand, while I almost always get super feedback from editors, I have occasionally seen grammatical and punctuation errors, as well as unfortunate diction, introduced into my copy after I turn it in, once by someone (with an MFA in creative writing) who criticized a passage in the active voice for…not being in the active voice. Those clips all sleep in a drawer together.

  16. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, Chris! Yes, anyone who’s been at this long enough has heard the skepticism and disillusionment from clients about sloppy freelancers they’ve known. Of course, it’s a bad news/good news thing on several levels….

    Sure you hate to know that there are bad apples out there, making it tougher for us good guys, but it also means that good guys will stand out. Also, while it can make it tougher to get in the door, and to win trust, if you can get in there, and you do a good job, you’ll likely have a loyal client for a while (I never say forever, as life just doesn’t work that way).

    And that’s the key: Do a good job. Not just in the work you deliver, but just as importantly, in HOW you deliver it (i.e., reliably, dependably, cleanly and with a good attitude).

    And funny how many stories I’ve heard about creative writing MFA’s without a grasp of grammar. Sorry you went through that, AND, we all have that (hopefully) small pile of clips that no one gets to see… 😉

  17. Chris
    Chris says:

    That is absolutely right, Peter. My mother-in-law worked as a graphic designer for many years and got some loyal clients just by showing up sometimes, literally. Her clients would tell her other designers just blew off appointments. Hard to believe but true.

    Another interesting thing is that, though I may not have enough data to prove it scientifically, I do keep a log of calls/emails to contacts and it appears that I have around three times the chance of getting hired if I speak to a potential client on the phone, even for under a minute, than I do if the first contact is an email. It must reassure them that I am a sentient being or something, and get past the skepticism.

  18. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    I’ve heard those same things from clients more times than I can count: Mind-blowing stories of blown-off appointments, missed deadlines, outright disappearances, sloppy copy with multiple typos, etc. And it’s truly amazing to me, given how relatively easy all of that is to deliver.

    Makes you wonder how many of those people who’re on record as having “tried to make a go of freelancing” without success, didn’t in fact, succeed, in part, because of these very things. AND, we’re getting off topic, but it’s a worthwhile tangent… 😉

    Your unofficial study of phone conversations yielding work more than email doesn’t surprise me. I found a similar dynamic at play years back when I found that meeting clients in person definitely yielded more work just speaking to them on the phone. Perhaps, in our impersonal digital age, the phone call has become the modern equivalent of the in-person meeting. Both being real-time interactions…

  19. Star
    Star says:

    Hi, All,

    Couple of comments:

    –I agree with Peter on how intensive Barbara’s group is. I would never offer these services without payment.

    –Speaking of groups, I ran a screenwriting group for many years. We crititiqued each other’s scripts. This is very sensitive territory. First, I discouraged those who never wrote a script from critiquing–they would anyway, usually scorchingly, and it got old. Second I nudged the discussion away from bad approaches. Sometimes instead of saying the second act needs work, maybe the reflection character needs to come back in to be filled in on the plot line…the critiquers would enthusiastically say, “Don’t you think this would be a better comedy than drama–maybe it could also be in the future not the present. This is the script they would write and had nothing to do with the one under discussion. I’ll admit I have been guilty of this myself–if something is so disjointed, I might say, hey you could keep these characters AND…in other words, a different script.

    –And yes, I often point out typos on websites, as recently as last weekend. Usually I get no response. But I did hear from that guy saying thanks, I will change it…but you know what, I have never heard back on what I contacted him about. I think I am dropped, now that you mention it.

    –And I agree with whoever said she liked to write, not edit. I actually prefer to be the one all butt-hurt rather than scold others. I am not always that happy with editing or second-guessing. I’ll admit it.

    Now, with my bad vision, I can beg off–sorry, I can’t read long things anymore. It’s true…though I could pick through with a magnifier, glasses, early in the day–but I don’t want to.

  20. Bette Arnold
    Bette Arnold says:

    I am convinced even editors and those who critique our work make errors. I found several errors in a newsletter from a reputable company that works with writers. I contacted them and all they said was something like, “It takes everyone’s help to produce our products”. They never fixed their errors.

    I am a bit leery of the whole critiquing business anyway. There is a group on Facebook that is absolutely brutal on questions or critiques. Nothing helpful is mentioned just about 20 plus people making horrible comments about any question, concern, or critique request.

    So what do you do when a “famous writer” makes an error…let it slide? I found this sentence once, “I wasn’t brutal, but I made it clear I thought it needed a lot of work it to get it to a viable stage.” I didn’t know if I should contact the writer to let him know I had trouble with that sentence. Should I have let him know that maybe the sentence should read: “I wasn’t brutal, but I made it clear I thought it needed a lot of work ON it to get it to a viable stage.”? I mean – what if I’m wrong?


  21. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Star,

    Good stuff – I especially liked what you said about those who hadn’t written screen plays, and how they shouldn’t be critiquing them. Pretty logical. Bottom line, it’s easy to be a critic, which is both a reason for AND against soliciting input: It’s easier to see errors in others’ works, and so that makes outside input valuable. But, as you point out, that critique can often stray from the point or get mean-spirited.

    Personally, I want people to point out typos in my work. And let’s be honest. When you write a lot of stuff, a few typos WILL sneak in, no way around it. But that’s a different issue than a content critique, where it’s far easier to get feathers ruffled and egos bruised.

    And Bette, speaking of wanting to know about typos… 😉 Fixed (above). Thanks for pointing it out, even if it was in a roundabout way… 😉 I’ll go on record right here: Should you find some typos in my work, PLEASE point it out. I want to know.

    That said, unfortunately, I’ve got a unique situation with the company I use to send out my monthly ezine. After it’s sent out, the company archives the issue, and if there’s a typo in the issue, I can’t fix it, because they’ve simply archived exactly what was sent out. I’d have to send it out AGAIN, correctly, and generate a second version. So, guess I’ll have to be extra careful. 🙂

  22. Star
    Star says:

    I do two blogs every weekday and have for 10 yrs on one, eight on the other. I can go back half an hour later after posting and dopey typos will jump out–which I can fix, unlike Peter’s example. These things amount to 10 thousand words a month–and I am uni-eyed–but Peter is right–stuff creeps in. I wouldn’t let it ruin my day unless it’s a wrong phone number on a direct response piece or something crucial. Just fix it on the next iteration of the piece–I hate to say it, but many clients won’t have noticed.

  23. David
    David says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing these insights. Your blog is just what I was looking for if I am honest with you. Never even realised you were around since 2008! 🙂

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