Reading the Work of a Friend

It comes like a bolt from the cloudy gray sky. You’re in a wonderful conversation with a buddy, someone who, like you, is an avid reader and who loves to write. You’re talking about, I don’t know, cauliflowers, maybe, and suddenly she says, “HEY. I just wrote a piece about cauliflowers! I would love to have you read it and give me your honest feedback.”

There is a charged, jolting silence that, if left too long extended, could easily become a bubbling tarpit that slurpily sucks up your friendship.

What,–oh, what,–should you do?

**************

Of course, you’re going to have to read the piece.

We are all different, so I am in no way prescribing the ways in which I think everyone should respond. But I’ve evolved, over a lifetime of mishaps and mis-steps, some ways of responding to the writings of friends and family. I share them here, and I would love to hear your own response methods and techniques, too.

1. When someone asks, “Can you tell me if this is any good?” I have learned to hear, instead, in my mind’s ear, “Can you tell me what’s good about this piece?”

There IS something good about the writing. I read the work through that lens. I know, from a long career of grading compositions, that it’s so much easier to point out flaws than to uncover the strengths. Yet every paper has strength embedded.

I focus on the content, and I ask myself:

–Did I learn something by reading this? If so, I tell my friend what I learned, and why and how that might be valuable to me.
–Did something in the writing evoke an emotion? Did I, once, go through something similar so I understand the feelings discussed? I might start a sentence like this, “You made me remember how I felt when my Uncle Bertie died…” or “I felt the same way when I got my first rejection letter–I could relate to this so clearly!”
–Was I reminded of anything or anybody? Then, I might write, “Your description of Joe reminded me so much of an old friend from college days…” or, “My mother had  a treadle sewing machine, too, and I can still hear the chugga chugga of her pumping that big black pedal…”

I have to remember, I’m a reader, not a teacher. I put my red pen away and read for enjoyment. I am freed from the responsibility to teach this person how to write: she knows that already. My reactions, though, can help her strengthen the good stuff. I focus on that.

2. If the writing brings up questions, I ask them. I ask them in a way that says, I got so interested in this, I just have to know the answers.

I might say,  “So whatever happened to Aunt Tillie’s hairbrush? I’m dyin’ to know!” or “Did Danny ever get to go to college, then?” I try to ask the question in a way that says, “You’ve interested me and I really want to know more,” and NOT in a way that says, “Sorry, Bucko; your explanation is incomplete.”

3. I NEVER edit. The most I will do is say something mild like, “Thank goodness for spell and grammar check! Whatever did we do without them to polish up our final drafts!?”

My buddy isn’t asking for an editor. I put down the red pen and I step away from the grade book.

4. If the buddy asks me to read something really long–more than twenty pages, say,–I’m honest. I say, “Right now, I really can’t read that much, but I’d love to read a couple of pages to get the flavor of the piece.” And then I give those two pages my complete and undivided attention, and I respond in ways that show I really read and understand.

It’s an honor, really, to be asked to read someone’s work; they’re trusting me with something personal and precious. I need to handle it that way–and in the way I’d like someone to respond to my work. I need to look for the gold, and ask the questions that present themselves. It’s possible to be honest and supportive at the same time.

And what a treat to think that I may be the first to read something wonderful, something soon to be published and acclaimed–or just something cherished by the writer or their dear ones. In our wordy world, it’s nice to offer encouragement and validation–to show our friends that someone really does read and listen to what they have to say.