Should You Tell Your Friend They’re Bad at Writing?

Do you crush their dreams, or let them hope?

So you have this friend. You value them enough to respect them and avoid hurting their feelings as much as possible.

You and this friend continuously bond over the fact that you’re both writers. It’s not the primary reason you get along, but it’s nice to have someone to “talk about writing” with, and a solid reminder that you aren’t the only one struggling to put ideas into words and make those words accessible to the masses.

You’ve gotten to the point in your “writing relationship” where you both are willing to swap prose knowing you’re good enough friends that each will receive honest feedback without resentment — a great place to be, as far as writing relationships go.

There’s just one problem.

When your friend emails you a piece of their manuscript-in-progress, you sit down, open it up, get a few sentences in and realize …

It’s bad.

Like … really bad.

Like can-barely-get-through-the-first-paragraph-because-it’s-so-hard-to-read bad.

This is not at all what you expected from them. IRL, they’re pretty good at talking, telling stories, and explaining ideas and opinions clearly. They’re an excellent conversationalist and always enjoyable to talk to. And overall, they have good ideas and story foundations you’re genuinely interested in diving into.

But on paper, it just doesn’t translate. You spend a lot of time on the internet — you’ve read a lot of not-so-great writing. This is worse than that. It’s barely even English.

The issue runs much deeper than this, however. Not only is your friend a writer like you, but they’re also almost obsessively determined to become “the next J.K. Rowling.” They can’t stop talking about publishing their first book and writing their way to fortune and fame.

So they’re not just casually curious about what you think. They’re almost begging you to validate their effort so they can continue pursuing their dream.

When they ask you for the fourteenth time if you’ve read their manuscript yet — and you really haven’t, because it’s barely possible — what do you say?

This is a dilemma a friend brought up to me recently. And I can honestly say it’s the first time in a long time I’ve hesitated when giving writing-related advice.

Because here’s the problem: While you might think you’d be saving your friend a lot of heartache by just breaking the bad news to them now, would you really be doing them a favor?

Sure, you could tell them “great job” and keep encouraging them to go for it, and they might face years of rejection and disappointment because of that. But is that a better or worse outcome than hearing someone they value and trust say they aren’t going to make it?

Is it better to be honest and tell them they’re … not good at it? Or should you continue encouraging them, even though it might hurt them in the long-term?

As humans often do, I turned this question back on myself and tried to imagine myself as the bad writer friend dreaming big. Would I want someone to tell me my writing kind of sucked? Or would I have a better experience continuing to write to my heart’s content and chase my dreams even if it wasn’t likely they’d come true?

I’m not sure I would want to know if my writing was terrible. At least, I’m not sure I’d want to hear it from someone close to me. If I were passionate enough about writing to work hard in an attempt to make it, having my dreams crushed before my eyes … I don’t know how I would handle that.

But that’s just me personally. Maybe there are some people out there who would rather know ahead of time so they didn’t have to bother failing over and over again.

Eventually, weighing so many possibilities in my hands, I came to one conclusion: I don’t think it should be your responsibility, as a friend, to dampen their dream. I think it’s a friend’s job to encourage, lift up, and support the other person in everything they do. Friends don’t tear each other down or build walls around each others’ ambitions.

I think that kind of responsibility falls onto a professional with no personal ties to an aspiring writer who doesn’t have the skills (yet) to make it in the industry. I also think there’s great value in letting someone pursue a goal they’ve established themselves — especially if it makes them happy. If it brings them joy, does it really matter if they’re good at it?

What happens if they come to you one day in tears and ask, “Why didn’t you tell me I suck at writing?” Would they be a little hurt if you told them you wanted to encourage and support them instead of knocking them down? Maybe. But you never lied. Not with the intention of hurting them, anyway. You were doing the right thing, being a good, supportive friend. I see no harm in that.

Could you subtly offer them opportunities to continue taking charge of their writing dreams while also, maybe, improving their skills as a writer? Possibly. I’m all for suggesting a course or book or mentorship opportunity to someone who could benefit it whether they’re on their way to writing success or have a long, long way to go. It’s possible to offer help without being condescending about it.

Basically, you don’t have to tell someone they’re a bad writer. You probably shouldn’t. Approach the situation with well-meaning kindness, and if they really seem like they’re desperate, suggest ways for them to self-improve as writers casually and let them decide if they want to take advantage of them or not.

Always leave someone’s future in their own hands, even when trying to support them. You don’t want to be the one to talk someone out of what they want to do. Sometimes, it’s best to leave people to their dreams and let them find their way to wherever they’re going to end up on their own. Just make sure you’re there for them at the end of the road, no matter what.

How about you? How would you handle a tough situation like this?

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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36 thoughts on “Should You Tell Your Friend They’re Bad at Writing?

  1. Meg, you ask a challenging question. I know someone who has been working on a book off and on for several years. She is a good writer, who just needs encouragement to finish her book. Then, she can see what her next step will be. I am entering my 6th month as a writer so my experience is much less than hers. I am fortunate that I don’t have to worry about the quality of her writing.

  2. Wow! I really liked this post. It made me think and in actual fact, I think you’re right. It’s not our job and after all, who are we to judge? I’m sure that most authors out there have had a lot of rejections for whatever reason, but somebody out there will appreciate their work. In truth, I’d be gutted if someone told me that I wrote badly. I love to write and it really helps me in many ways. I find it calming and soothing and have such a sensitive nature that I’d probably give it up if told I was rubbish … simply to save myself any further embarrassment. Great post – really enjoyed it! Katie x

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you found it intriguing. It’s so hard to flip it around and think about how you’d want someone to react to your work. I actually still can’t decide if I’d want someone to tell it to me straight or not, but that’s just my fear of confrontation talking hahaha.

      1. Yes, it’s a tricky one. In truth I’d rather have the humiliation from a professional who I’d never have to see again, rather than a friend always knowing that I was rubbish at writing!

      2. See, that’s kind of how I feel too. I’ll take it more as professional criticism if that’s who it’s coming from. haha.

  3. Definitely make you think! I’d probably be honest and upfront (I’m a “rip the bandaid off’ kinda gal). Although I’d approach it with a lot of “be sure to get other opinions”, “this is just my take”, and “maybe a writing course would help her more than I can”. Whatever I said I’d want to be sure to encourage them to find a way to still accomplish their dream….only figure out how “they” can make that happen. And maybe they’re not the next JK Rowling…maybe they’re the next amazing author of children’s books. Ya never know! Lol! I do know dreams are hard to come by. And I’d never want to crush anyone’s dream.

    1. So true. There are also many different ways to “be a writer.” Maybe they’ll never publish a book the “traditional way,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of options out there!

  4. If I turn the question on how I would expect someone to respond to this question: is it any good? when I give them a piece of my work, I’d expect honesty, and no omissions or platitudes.
    It doesn’t have to be rude or blunt or a put-down, but it does have to be honest.

    the concept is interesting, but the execution needs more work – what do you know about structure?
    there are lots of grammar issues, but good grammar does not a good story make. You’d need to find time/money for editor/proofreader later.
    It’s a good start, but there’s something missing, and it may take a while to work out the arcs and subplots.
    The big picture seems to be missing a framework – I can’t see why the character would do that, so what is the motivation here?
    I can see you’re trying to [do this], but it needs more of [whatever it needs] – can I recommend a craft book/course to get in a bit of practice/see what others do?
    This looks like you struggled, not like your normal spoken stories – do you find it difficult to get the right rhythm/flow/shape when having to write it?
    [lots more could go here].

    Good honest feedback may save a new/apprentice writer a lot more heartache later, and they will appreciate the time spent, and possibly even reciprocate … even newbie writers are readers with potential to comment on work they read. And this may be the point where they can learn the most – sharing discussion of many other pieces of writing, what works, why; what doesn’t, how; strengths and styles, voices and settings …

    Why do I feel so strongly about this? If, when I was a newbie writer, the people I’d asked for an honest opinion were honest, rather than responding with lies by omission, I wouldn’t have wasted all those years trying to work out on my own (and with books) what was wrong.
    Just my opinion, of course, but we all start from different points/places/educational backgrounds, and honest can save a friendship if it’s done well. Dishonest, in any shape or form, will lose it once the person realises. I’d consider how much I’d like to keep my friend, and sit her down and ask her how serious about the gig she wants to be, is she willing to put in the hard work, etc., etc., etc.

    1. This is a great point and very well said. :) There are definitely ways to build someone up with honesty. Thanks for sharing your perspective, I think there are many ways to approach the situation and none are necessarily “wrong.” Unless you go the extreme and put them down, of course.

      1. That’s true – it’s better to help them see it clearly by asking the right questions. This will bring them on board the process, and in turn, become an asset to the person who helped them. Ulterior motive – we always need someone to help us see our own work clearly, and I’m happy to help them strive up that mountain path. We are co-travellers, after all, not competitors. That’s how I feel, anyway.

  5. I actually had a similar situation to this, only I was the one with the bad writing skills. It was a few years ago and I gave out my first manuscript to my two best friends. One of them read it very quickly and came back telling me they loved it. The other took ages, like months. And when she did finish it she didn’t tell me she had until I asked her directly. She avoided it until I pressed harder and she caved telling me that she couldn’t lie about how she felt. She was honest and gave me constructive criticism on how I should improve it.
    I found this extremely helpful, not only because did she do it in a polite and caring way, but it also helped me to see that my style isn’t for everyone – because my other friend really enjoyed the exact same piece of work. I would rather my friends be honest with me as I personally find that to be more supportive than if I was to eventually find out they had been lying. It didn’t knock my confidence or shatter my dreams, it inspired me to work harder and improve upon the good elements that she saw: just like the way you acknowledged they had good ideas about plot, etc.

    1. I’m so glad this experience worked out in your favor. :) I think if someone knows how to be honest and constructive in their feedback, it can absolutely be more helpful than hurtful. I did, however, actually read a few paragraphs of the “bad writing” a friend was asking about, and honestly — even from your comment here — I highly doubt what you wrote was awful in comparison haha. I think there are different kinds of “bad writing.” e.g., something full of cliches or “cringe-worthy,” or an unusual style that might not sit well with a reader, and just a bad handle on a written language (as was the problem with my friend’s friend). Have you shared any writing with them since you’ve worked at it? I wonder if their viewpoint would have changed or if they’re just not a fan of your style (which is totally OK, as you said).

      1. I suppose its kind of funny actually because when i worked on it and gave them both the revised piece, my other friend who loved the original said she preferred the original. So it really goes to show how subjective and personal writing is.
        I really agree on everything you’ve said. It also depends on how close you are with your friends, which factors into the likelihood of their honesty.

  6. Great advice. I don’t believe you are doing your friend a favor or being a friend if you totally ignore their deficiencies. With that much enthusiasm and desire to be JKRowlings :-) I’m sure they would be willing to work and improve the writing process.
    I had several people close to me read my first draft of a novel, and they said they really enjoyed my story and would buy it. When I sent it out to agents, I got rejection after rejection.
    One of those agents was nice enough to offer advice. “It was a great story but it’s not ready for publication. You have grammatical and structural errors, you are head hopping, and your dialogue drags.”
    Her response did not discourage me, but encouraged me. I had something to work with.

    1. I’m so glad someone took the time to point to specific things you could work on. Would you rather it have come from a professional, as it did, than a friend? I personally feel like I wouldn’t trust most of my friends to give actually helpful feedback haha, I do love them though. :P

    1. This is very true! When considering it, I think it’s important to be more specific even just in your own mind about what makes it “bad.” Do you just personally not like it, or are there structural or other errors that make it difficult to follow? It depends on the individual and the situation, I suppose.

  7. Oh, I’ve been in this position before, both with friends and with clients that have hired me for editing. I think it comes down to talking to them the same way a good critique is done. You know, finding the positive and then saying respectful and constructive comments. ‘This description is great, but look how much stronger it would be if it was written as dialog so it showed the characters?’ Or, ‘This character has some great traits, but look at how you can make them integral to the story if they had…’ Sometimes you can simply tell them something like, ‘I’ve read the first chapter and have some comments. If you want to look those over, then let me know if you want me to keep going with the rest of the manuscript’ it might also save you the time of having to read the whole thing. And of course, finally, you have to be prepared to lose the friend. No matter how kind you are, or how supportive you are, it may not be well-received. But we have to be honest, for ourselves if nothing else. You don’t want to kill their dreams, but dreams need to be based in reality at some point. Finally, from an editor standpoint, I understand the comment here that what is bad for one might be good for another, but there’s a difference between likes and dislikes, vs. structure, development, formatting, etc. We can have a viewpoint that we don’t like a story, but that doesn’t mean the story still doesn’t have to have the bones of craft to support the story’s body.

    1. I really appreciate your multi-angled perspective here. And there does have to be some kind of line drawn between supporting someone’s dream and making sure they don’t take an unrealistic dream too far. When I was talking to my friend about how she might handle this, she admitted she didn’t even want to read the first chapter because it was so poorly constructed. It sounded to me like her friend may have been in denial about her ability to write a bestselling book and while I always admire a writer for trying, there does come a point where someone might need to step in and help them to evaluate their goals. Who that person is really depends, but I like that you mentioned you have to be prepared for someone not taking your honesty well. After all, they’re the ones who asked — if they don’t like the answer, that’s not your responsibility haha.

      1. Very true. I wonder about gifts…as in a gift of a book like ‘Between the Lines’ by Jessica Page Morrell; one of my favorite books on writing. Or Janice Hardy’s book on editing. Though those might be too subtle!

  8. Part of the challenge is gauging what kind of feedback someone wants, and I think it’s not something one can simply “ask” directly. But if the person truly wants to become the next JK Rowling, then I think that alone implies they are looking for some form of constructive feedback.
    That said, I think there are different ways of providing that feedback.

    I personally do not believe in telling someone their dream is impossible, so long as it’s not overly narrow. A person may not have the means to become the next Einstein, but they could become a physicist, or a writer.
    If someone’s story is lacking, I would probably offer a mix of positive and constructively critical remarks. The weaker the story, the more ways there are to improve upon it.

    1. Completely agree. As an editor I was trained to give even amounts of positive and constructive criticism, beginning with the positive and gently and helpfully laying down the constructive. If done carefully, it can have positive outcomes. Hopefully.

  9. There are a lot of diplomatic ways of saying “needs work” without having to say “Totally sucks.” I wouldn’t want a friend to tell me something was good if it wasn’t. Similarly, if someone asks me to read something and give them an opinion, I warn them in advance that I’m brutally honest. Then I take the brutality out and give them diplomatically honest.

    1. I like the idea of “warning” them in advance! That’s a good option if you do want to be honest but don’t want to “shock” them with that honesty haha.

  10. I’ll be honest and say I don’t ever, ever, review anything written by friends. Want me to read your new short story? My pleasure. Need me to fix your spelling mistakes? Bring it on. Want me to give my opinion on whether or not you’ve portrayed your (woman/POC/LGBTQ+ person) respectfully from the point of view of someone who is there? Of course! Want me to tell you whether or not your writing is good? That’s where I bow out respectfully and tell you that, because we’re friends, I wouldn’t be objective. It’s not the most satisfactory answer, but it is the most honest one I can offer.

    1. I’m definitely with you there! It’s important to separate the personal from the professional, and I don’t want to give a professional-level critique to a friend. It would either be too honest or not honest enough. But I can definitely check your grammar haha.

      1. Not going to lie, I get SO excited when people ask me to check their grammar. I love correcting people on their grammar, but most of the time I do it in my head, so I have a field day when someone actually wants me to correct them, lol

      2. SAMMMME. Give me an opportunity to correct your grammar that won’t result in you getting annoyed with me (I hope) and I’m ALL IN.

  11. I don’t think I could tell someone their writing sucked if they enjoyed doing it. I might tell them they have some great ideas but they’re not quite coming across on paper. Then I might suggest ways they could remedy the situation.

  12. Reblogged this on Michael Seidel, writer and commented:
    Always difficult to address this question. I would have once said, “Tell the truth.” Morals, ethics, integrity, and that shit. But I’ve since thought, this is a Schrodinger situation, innit? It’s a thought experiment that their writing is bad today but it could be better next week, next month, next year. Or bad writing may become the new vogue. I’d rather keep the friendship. I don’t know how the the writing will be when tomorrow is opened.

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