Being an editor is easy compared to being a friend. Confusing the two is a sure path to flawed editing and fraught friendships.
So what should you do if a friend or family member asks for your opinion of their latest novel? Or — a more daunting and delicate task — to read the stack of unpublished paper they believe will turn them into the next J.K. Rowling?
All writers need editors who will give them honest, respectful and even challenging feedback. But as editors, we also need to be friends to our friends without being their editors. I would go so far as to say we should never edit for family.1
An honest approach
When good friends (or even professional acquaintances) have a book published, a good approach would be to:
- buy the book (of course! — freebies go to reviewers) and read as much of it as you can manage within the constraints of time, taste and patience
- respond as a reader, not as an editor, by mentioning a detail you genuinely like in the book
- offer one or two very gentle editing observations, and only if the writer persists in asking
Be positive and genuinely interested in your friend. No fake smiles. The goal is not for you to offer a professional opinion. The goal is for you to hear and talk about what your friend thinks about his or her book and the experience of writing it.
If you haven’t read the book, don’t feel at all guilty. Offer heartfelt congratulations. Say you look forward to reading it soon. Then ask about the book or its cover or the printer or the kids or the weather.
How to read the first draft of a friend’s novel: Don’t!2
Hang up your shingle as a freelance editor and suddenly everyone you know has a movie script, has an idea for the next big fantasy series or is exploring new shades of romance.
For these occasions, a very slightly ironic laugh is helpful. Practise it in front of the mirror if you need to. Then find a gentle way to say no, thank you, that’s not the kind of editing I do. Or, “I like you too much to be objective. I can recommend a colleague who reads and evaluates manuscripts for a fee.”
As an editor of non-fiction, I might make exceptions for a book about politics or gender bias or the finance industry. We all have a short list of topics that create exceptions to this general rule.
The point of friendship
Slate advice columnist Prudence (a.k.a. Emily Yoffe) offers this suggestion to an editor who was itching to tell a friend the “truth” about his boring book:
“… Just offer some anodyne remarks: ‘Writing a novel is an amazing accomplishment.’ ‘I’m a slow reader, but it’s definitely on my nightstand.’ ‘You are an excellent speller.’ ”
In other words, she suggests, use the truth to tell a lie.
I don’t know what kind of friend Prudence is, but it seems she has missed the point of friendship here. She probably means the editor should say something that’s not hurtful to the friend and author. But she’s really advising us to take the path that’s least painful for ourselves, not for our friendship.
Where the gentle lie fails us
Telling the truth with intent to deceive is a fabulous device for a comic opera. It’s not a good approach to friendship — or editing, for that matter. Applying Prudence’s suggestions to any other situation reveals how flawed they are:
|What did you think of my book?
|How does this hat look on me?
|Writing a novel is an amazing accomplishment.
|It makes a real statement.
|Strategy: Offer false, ironic encouragement.
What this really says: I don’t know how to stop being an editor. My area of expertise prevents me from being curious about the book or your experience of becoming a published writer, so I’ll provide fake encouragement as a way to disguise my discomfort.
|I’m a slow reader, but it’s definitely on my nightstand.
|I don’t normally wear a beret, so let me think about it for a while.
|Strategy: Talk about yourself instead.
What this really says: I don’t know what to say about a book that’s boring for me. Instead, I want you to think about how humble and organized I am.
|You are an excellent speller.
|Your shoes are great.
|Strategy: Redirect, avoiding eye contact.
What this really says: If you don’t know you’re a bad writer, perhaps you won’t notice I have disguised this insult as a compliment.
Of course, substituting cold-blooded honesty for deceit also misses the point. Have you forgotten the point? The point is that your friend’s book is not about your taste or what you know about editing. And your feedback is not really about your friend’s book. The point is when a friend asks for your opinion of their book, your answer should further your friendship, not your professional opinion.
With friends, friendship comes first. Editing comes a distant last.
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1 The voice of experience. My mother once asked for my opinion of her book. I replied with the truth. But it was something her editor should have told her, not her daughter. And I regret that I was not mature enough to know the difference.
2 Your inner editor and mine might disagree. If you have the courage and wisdom to manage reading a friend’s manuscript without heading for the weeds, you should do so if you wish. But the feedback limits still apply.