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OPWA: Episode Eighteen · 5:53pm March 28th

Overpriced Writing Advice
Where you can learn the stuff I paid thousands of dollars to have taught to me, for free.

The Joys and Perils of Giving Free Feedback: Tips For The Put Upon Writer

So I’m not ashamed to say that I frequently go back to re-read my own work. Yes, I really do enjoy my own writing, but sometimes in doing so I’m reminded of ideas I’d set aside in favor of some other goal.

Other times, it’s seeing something I can improve or expand on, and that’s where this post comes from today. Today's topic would benefit people on either side of the issue, so I hope you guys like it! Anyway—

At the end of episode nine of this series, which if you don’t remember covered world-building, I advised you guys to organize your ideas and to treat it as a pitch when asking for feedback on your work. It immediately reminded me of a very recent experience with a longtime friend who asked me to read his comic book anthology script… all 176 pages of it!

Did I know it was that long? Hell no! I nearly fainted at the sight of it!

Now I had various misgivings about this particular task, but in the end, I reasoned that if the time ever came, I might be able to turn around and ask for a similar favor with an original manuscript I am currently (very slowly) working on.

News to no one: It wasn’t easy. 

Sometimes the detailed panel descriptions (which are really only meant for the artist) were so dense that I had to get up and walk away. Other times I’d have my head in my hands over the brilliance of my friend’s visual descriptions, only to very soon despair over the fact that no one but his script editors and artist would ever see them. Then of course there was the constant struggle of remembering the format of the work, and whether or not it was worth it to make a note over spelling, sentence structure, or narrative planning.

The experience led me to remember an amusing article that was required reading during my creative writing degree program. I couldn’t tell you what course it was for, it was that long ago, but the title of the article was, ‘I Will Not Read Your F*%!ing Script’ by Josh Olson, the guy who wrote the screenplay for the film, A History of Violence

It was pretty amusing, but also a really good cautionary tale about the perils of giving and receiving creative feedback. Here’s an excerpt that I think encapsulates the strange dilemma we writers often find ourselves in, particularly when we have other writer friends or acquaintances:

Now, I normally have a standard response to people who ask me to read their scripts, and it’s the simple truth: I have two piles next to my bed. One is scripts from good friends, and the other is manuscripts and books and scripts my agents have sent to me that I have to read for work. Every time I pick up a friend’s script, I feel guilty that I’m ignoring work. Every time I pick something up from the other pile, I feel guilty that I’m ignoring my friends. If I read yours before any of that, I’d be an awful person.

Most people get that. But sometimes you find yourself in a situation where the guilt factor is really high, or someone plays on a relationship or a perceived obligation, and it’s hard to escape without seeming rude.

In my personal situation, my friend hardly cornered me. What I felt was a more sympathetic response. I know how hard it is to get good feedback on your work. Ninety percent of the time, no one reads my work before I post it. So I responded to his general request in our friends’ group chat because I wanted to be helpful. 

Was there some element of selfish motive involved? A little, sure. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that this person might turn around and help you further down the road. But honestly? It’s just good to be a helpful colleague and a good friend. 

Yes, this kind of help is good.

But giving feedback is never required, unless you’re getting hired to do so.

I was doing all of this gratis.

Keeping the selfish motive in the picture, there are more ways to look at it than just, “Will they do tit for tat?” or “Am I getting paid?” 

If you’re a part of an active writing group or community, then being the helpful beta-reader/proofreader/editor/commenter can really raise your esteem with your peers. Reading someone else’s work can also be very enriching for your own work! It forces you to brush up on your grammar, spelling, and narrative skills.

But Josh Olson’s response is still perfectly valid.

If some guy you barely know comes up and asks you (without warrant) to read their work, then they really don’t know what they are getting into. 

Criticism, by its nature, is often hard to take. That doesn’t mean it has to be uncivil, but sometimes there really isn’t any way to get around a harsh bit of advice. It’s even worse when someone nowhere near your experience level asks you to read their work. In those cases, it could very well turn into a wasted act of charity.

Here’s another great quote from Josh Olson’s article:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

It’s why I have such an intense aversion to asking for feedback, even from fellow writers. First, I don’t know a ton of people that I feel comfortable enough to ask for help, who also happen to be at or above my writing level. That doesn’t mean I don’t know any, but what I’m requesting isn’t a small favor.

It is a big ask. Even if it’s a short piece, you are asking a lot. Period. Anyone who has had to read for someone else knows this. Because when you’re reading someone else’s work, you aren’t reading passively. At least, you aren’t supposed to be. You should be carefully weighing every… single… word, sentence, paragraph, and scene.

No matter the depth of your engagement, chances are, even the barest minimum of editing effort requires you to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a work, then translate all of that into some kind of feedback the writer can actually use.

This is, of course, in no way referring to those fake beta-readers whose final ‘assessment’ amounts to something like, “Yeah, it was cool. I like this character, but that one fight scene was dumb,” only for you to wonder what the hell they're talking about because your work didn't have any fight scenes.

Now it’s fair to say that there really are writers who are just fishing for someone to tell them their work is super amazing. Do you know what I say about those writers? 

Avoid them like friggin’ crazy.

They are wasting their time and yours. There is no point in reading someone’s work if all they want is to have sweet nothings whispered in their ear. Their readers don’t do that, so why should you? Neither one of you will benefit at all from such a charade, and it would be in your best interest to be upfront about what you’ll bring to the table—and that should always be a real and honest critique.

Here’s another great quote from Olson about why sometimes all you have is harsh advice, and as uncomfortable as it is, you might actually be doing this person a disservice in holding this back:

I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here’s the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I’ve done you a favor, because now you’ll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be. And, for the record, everybody has one. The lucky ones figure out what that is. The unlucky ones keep on writing shitty screenplays and asking me to read them.

All that said, if you are considering helping someone with their work, you must consider their needs. Sometimes, writers aren’t super upfront about this, so just ask them:

  • Do you need help with grammar and spelling?
  • Do you need help with characterization?
  • Do you need help with setting and world-building?
  • Do you need help with plot continuity and narrative structure?
  • Do you need help with atmosphere and tone?
  • Do you need help with fight scenes, sex scenes, etc.?

There are a lot of things an editor or beta-reader can help with! Once you understand what the writer needs, then you can be honest about what you can give them. If all you feel up for is grammar and spelling, then say so! If you aren’t confident in your technical editing but are more than up for helping with narrative and character, just say that! If the other person pushes for something you’ve made clear you can’t give them? Politely but firmly refuse. 

One question I considered adding to the list was deadlines. Does the writer need the work within a certain time? I decided against encouraging this question, mostly because we’re talking about FREE writing help, not paid work. If anyone needs something within a certain time, they should tell you first thing, and then it’s up to you to agree to it. If they don’t give you a deadline (or fail to) that is not your concern, because you aren’t getting paid for this. Sometimes, asking this question yourself just invites higher expectations on what should be an informal arrangement.

It’s up to you to evaluate how you handle called-in favors, too. Say someone read your work, then comes to you later asking for help on their story. You can tell them no, just understand that you may be losing free help later, or worse, a good colleague entirely. If you want to return the favor right away, my past advice still stands: you’ll help them sure, but only in the time that you are able, and in the areas you feel comfortable in.

Be careful with rainchecks, too. Eventually, you will need to pony up if you promise to read someone's work at another time... That's assuming you care about how you treat people, and how staving someone off with lies might hurt your reputation.

Never forget, this is a favor, not a transaction. We aren’t discussing monetary editing here.

And again, Josh Olson’s attitude is valid.

“Hey, would you please read my story?”



But what if you offered/accepted to help and then changed your mind partway through reading someone else’s piece?

It happened to me when I was reading my friend’s work. Halfway through his comic script, I wanted to tap out. He even pulled the ol’ amateur move Olson talks about in his article on me:

“Did you start reading it yet? DON’T. Here’s a new version. It’s better.”

Oh, okay, so you want me to START ALL OVER AGAIN?! Why didn’t you send me critique-ready work in the first place??

Just because this is an informal arrangement doesn't mean you have to put up with inconsiderate requests.

But you know what? I still followed through. I resumed reading in the new version where I’d left off in the old version and firmly but politely told my friend I would not go back and review past portions. Why? He should have given me his best draft, plain and simple. That was his fault, not mine. I didn't hand him a blank check on my time.

Despite that hiccup, I kept moving forward.

You finish the job. You just see it through. Even if it’s torturous and it takes you forever, YOU FINISH. Why? Because as dickish as just outright telling someone NO could be, it’s even worse to flake out and never deliver on something you promised. It erodes trust, it kills respect, and it shuts down opportunities. You might get away with doing this to your friends and family since they’ll likely forgive you...but to a writing peer? Oof, no.

Notice that as much as Olson complained about reading his friend’s boyfriend’s script synopsis, HE STILL DID IT. He did the deed. But you know what? He mentioned a caveat he often gives to people:

I tell them I’ll read it, but if I can put it down after ten pages, I will.

If you kinda want to say yes but don’t want to get boxed into something you’ll end up regretting, you can totally do this. “I’ll read till this point, but if I’m not feeling it after that, I’m stopping.” Just remember that you have to stick with that!

Trust me, that kind of commitment can be good when you know when to engage in it. I’ve already listed the ways it can benefit you. Even though I suffered plenty doing this for my friend, I’m glad I did it and I feel like I got something out of it. You may not always feel this way in the end, but if you’re smart about it, you’ll feel this way more often than not.

All you have to do is try to remember the ways promising to read others’ work can hinder you, and judge each case on their individual circumstances. Here’s a recap of what to keep in mind:

  1. Avoid those who you don’t think will be able to receive true and honest feedback.
  2. Consider the difference in your skill levels, and assess how beneficial your interactions could be.
  3. Be aware of how much time you have available to set aside.
  4. Be upfront with your strengths and weaknesses. 
  5. Get a clear idea of what the writer needs from you.
  6. You can always say no.
  7. If you accept, FOLLOW THROUGH.
  8. If you still want to help but have some doubts, put a limit to how much you read.

It very well could mean that you only ever help someone else every once in a blue moon. 

Me? I actually don’t read others’ work that much. Very rarely. But when I do? I usually commit to assisting in projects if I feel it will be beneficial for me somehow. That could mean reciprocal feedback, increasing my status, or reaping the benefits of brushing up on my writing knowledge and awareness.

And sometimes? Hey man, it just feels nice to help.

What did you guys think? Have anything you'd like to add?

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Comments ( 5 )

Interesting 🤓

Very good advice! The page limit thing is especially helpful cause man sometimes it is hard to say no even when you really really really want to.

Another point! The time for "constructive feedback" is usually before they post, not after!


Another point! The time for "constructive feedback" is usually before they post, not after!

That is certainly highly preferable, lol. I've done retroactive edits a ton tho.

Haha, sometimes it's alright i guess XD

If you kinda want to say yes but don’t want to get boxed into something you’ll end up regretting, you can totally do this. “I’ll read till this point, but if I’m not feeling it after that, I’m stopping.” Just remember that you have to stick with that!

This is a great way to frame this. Sometimes our need for someone else to be on the other side of this writing that we flood them and give nothing in return.

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