I recently saw a tweet asking if you should give unsolicited feedback to a friend. Clearly, the person wanted to be helpful but also wanted to be considerate. You’ve probably found yourself in a similar situation wanting to balance fixing something and keeping your friendship.
As you can imagine, the replies were all over the place from ‘Yes, I’d like to know’ to ‘No, it’ll be caught by the editor.’ The thing is, there is no single right answer to this question. It’ll depend on the person’s mindset and your relationship with that person, which will be unique to everyone.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve given feedback more harshly than I should and have received harsh feedback that made me doubt myself. I’ve also received no feedback when I wished I had. And I’ve had feedback that has helped elevate my work. When done right, feedback is invaluable.
From my mistakes and experience, here are seven things to consider when deciding when to offer feedback…
How far along is the novel?
Where the novel is in process may determine what feedback the writer needs and what they are open to. For example, a writer who has written one or two chapters may need encouragement rather than suggestions. They may also still be moving things around and would fix the things you’ve noticed without you having to point it out.
A writer who has written most of the book may be ready for more constructive feedback. However, they too may still be editing and moving things about. Either way, not all writers are open to feedback at all stages.
What editing stage are they in?
Generally, a novel will go through several stages of editing starting with developmental/structual editing. Whatever type of feedback you decide to give, it should be in line with that they are working on.
This will save you time. You don’t want to proofread for grammar mistakes when whole sections may be deleted due to structural changes. This also takes away the focus from what is needed at the time.
If they are in the proofreading stage and you suggest structal changes, this could be a huge setback. This doesn’t mean your friend wouldn’t want to know there is a larger issue, but you should consider the impact of what your feedback may have on them and if they are mentally in a space to handle it.
When they asked you to read it, did they mention feedback?
Ideally, you have the conversation with them about what they need from you—before you read their work.
Think about it. If you ask, “Do you want feedback,” after you’ve read it, this signals that you indeed have feedback. And they are probably going to say yes even if they really don’t want it.
But if you ask upfront, they can guide you on what they are looking for. They may want a simple, does this work on the surface. I did this recently with a short story. I knew it still had to go through heavy revisions and simply wanted to know if the idea made sense. At other times, your reader friend may want no holds barred feedback. They may be ready to break it down and rebuild it. But you don’t know if you don’t ask.
Have you proofed and given feedback to them before?
If you have provided this service before, there could be an unspoken expectation to give it again. And chances are, if they write a lot and want to be a professional, they are more open to feedback than someone who just wrote a story to share for fun. However, it’s still best to ask.
You may also want to ask what they liked or found helpful from your past feedback. This can guide you on the best way to approach it in the future.
Have they given you feedback in the past?
Similar to the one above, there could be an unspoken expectation. If you fall into this category, consider yourself lucky. This is your chance to start a critique group, even if it’s just the two of you. Talk it out and set up some guidelines.
Why do you want to give feedback?
Most writers I know are a helpful lot. However, if your sole answer is ‘because I would want it’, consider this.
You’re familiar with the golden rule, treat others as you want to be treated. This is definitely good at high level like treating people with respect, kindness, and politness. We all want this. However, what each of these looks like in practice may differ.
When I was in advertising sales, we were taught to use the platinum rule. This takes the golden rule a step further. Treat people as they want to be treated.
Yes, you want to see your friend succeed. Yes, you’re trying to be constructive. You’re heart is in the right place. You would have wanted the feedback. Still… they may not. And again the best way to know is to ask.
Has the book been published?
This is the only one I would say NO on. At this point its finished and your writer friend is probably moving on to something else. Don’t crush them by pointing out mistakes in something that’s on the market.
There are two exceptions to this. One, the mistake is so embarrassing that you are doing your friend a favor. This probably doesn’t mean a comma is in the wrong place. Two, they mention they are revising it for some reason. Then you can ask if they are looking for help.
It’s nice to want to help your friend, but do so in a manner that is actually helpful. As much as we want to share our opinions, make sure your friend is in the right space to hear what you have to say.