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 …
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.