Someone recently asked me if she was a real writer.
While I may be completely comfortable putting my own words on a page, I’m not always comfortable critiquing the words of others and doling out writing advice. I’m just not that into dream-crushing, you know?
She let me read some of her writing, which was mostly a collection of short personal stories about her own life. The text was riddled with misspellings, incomplete sentences, and thoughts that jumped from one topic to the next without any real organization. I instantly felt my heart in my throat. What was I supposed to tell her? Truth is, she wasn’t a good writer.
But she didn’t ask me if she was a good writer. She asked me if she was a real one.
She had amazing stories to tell — stories about her own colorful experiences. And somehow, even though she couldn’t always form complete sentences, her words still held great meaning, like I knew instantly they were bigger than those mere shapes on the page.
Sometimes it’s hard to accept something as it is when you’re used to looking at everything through an academic lens. While good grammar and sound structure have their merits (we need to be able to understand each other, right?), they can also get in the way of the bigger picture. Some people know how to tell unpolished stories in a very polished way. Others just know how to tell stories.
Sometimes that’s the point, I think. To tell good stories that connect with people, to let your words wiggle their way into the minds of your readers regardless of their eloquence or shine.
But how can you be honest with someone when you know she won’t necessarily like the answer? Here are a few things to consider:
- What is her reason for writing? Does she really want be published and widely-read, or is she doing it for her own benefit? Pinpointing her purpose for writing will help you pinpoint your critique. If she’s writing for her own enjoyment, there’s no reason to tell her she’ll never sell her manuscript. (Besides, editors can work wonders.) If, however, she wants people to take her writing seriously, you can tactfully tell her where to improve.
- What do you like about her writing? Even though errors stand out, try to focus on one or two things she’s doing well. Maybe it’s her use of unique adjectives or her opening sentence. Emphasize the good things before you tear up all the bad.
- Remember that friend-to-friend advice is different than working on a paying client’s manuscript. While I believe tact is always necessary, if someone’s paying you to tidy up her manuscript, then you can’t afford to gloss over things she really needs to change. As an editor, being overly-nice or forgiving won’t serve you or your client well.
I remembered her question. Was she a real writer? As storytellers go, she was as real as they come.
She wasn’t that interested in publication, she told me. She might like to turn her stories into a book just for her family members, if at all. But mostly she wanted to preserve her life on paper. She had stories inside that she needed to get out. I knew the feeling, so I told her to keep writing. Not all writing is just about the audience, and being a “real” writer isn’t always about being polished. Sometimes it’s much more personal than that.
As long as any of us feel the need to tell our stories to the page, we should do it.
Have you ever offered writing advice to a friend? How did you handle it? I want to know — tell me in the comments below or join the Ladies in Read on Pinterest to share your best writing advice and inspiration!
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