Why Friends Don’t Make Good Reviewers

We love our friends! We go to them for advice about our lives and love. We confide our problems or sadness to them. We celebrate joy together with them. We enjoy their company, how we make each other laugh or empathize with one another, and their opinion matters greatly to us. Friendship is a wonderful thing!

Two young girls coloring together

So what’s the problem if you ask a friend to edit your writing or read through your story? You trust them already, and you want to know what they have to say. And no matter how much you might think you’re prepared for any possible response, the truth is, you aren’t, and you’re definitely hoping for a shining review or feedback from your friend. And that’s okay! That’s normal! Of course we want the project we worked so hard on to be immediately loved by the people we care about most. We want every word in its place and every sentence brilliantly phrased. And these things are possible! With editing and time and revising and yet more editing. Which means . . .

Friends Don’t Make Good Reviewers

Simply put, a friend is more likely to do your writing harm than good because of something called the social desirability bias. This is absolutely something you’ve experienced before—I certainly have—even if you didn’t know the terminology. The social desirability bias is the effect of people having the tendency to respond to surveys and questions in a way they believe will be viewed in a favorable light by others.

How does this affect you as a writer?

Two closed gray doors next to one closed red door.

Typically, a friend wants to be just that: a friend. They don’t want to tell you things you may not want to hear. They shouldn’t want to make you feel bad about yourself or anything you create. (Neither should a good editor, by the way.) But negative feedback will happen. I’d argue it needs to happen for the development of your work. Negative feedback isn’t fun, but a necessary step to improve your work on the road to submitting or publishing.

At the end of this blog post, I’ll discuss ways to handle negative feedback.

As someone looking for feedback, your greatest need is true constructive criticism. The best way to get that is to go to someone you don’t know for a “blind” reading. And these are the best kinds of reviews typically out there. Someone reading your project “blind” doesn’t know you and doesn’t know much, if anything, about your work. This type of feedback is actually essential for manuscripts. Everyone who picks your book up off a shelf is a “blind” reader, and your manuscript has to be interesting enough in a very short time to keep that book off the shelf.

What to do if you decide to ask a friend to be your editor or reviewer

First, and most importantly, make sure you give your friend explicit permission to be honest with you. This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but be clear. Make sure they understand you’re serious. Make sure they understand you want real, unfiltered, and honest feedback from them. Don’t say things like, “Feel free to be mean to me,” or joke about the process you’re asking your friend to complete. Sentences like that take away from your own seriousness and place pressure on your friend to actually do the opposite of what you’re asking for.

Tell your friend that you plan to speak with someone else about the project too! Say, an editor! But first, you want to get your writing as polished as you can so your editor has more time with your content rather than things like grammar and confusing paragraphs. This emphasizes your seriousness to your friend while also allowing them to be more honest. Because now, instead of just helping you alone, they’re helping you prepare, knowing if there’s anything they miss, the next person to see the project will probably find it.

This next one should be obvious, but don’t pester your friend about reviewing or editing your project for you. If they say no, accept it the first time and find someone else. You don’t want the resentment of someone feeling forced to look over something to bleed into a review you plan to use as legitimate advice.

Get more than one friend to look over your project and make sure to give them the same permissions for honesty that you gave anyone else. Why? No draft is perfect on its first trip out. It simply isn’t possible. (There’s a fair chance the blog you’re reading has been edited and revised at least four or five different times before being posted.)

One hand holding three question marks on the left and one hand holding three lit light bulbs on the right

Be open to criticisms! This doesn’t mean being open to cruelty. Be open to honesty. Be open to advice. If someone tells you they think they found something wrong in your project and tells you why, listen to them. And the “why” is very important to the editing process. “I loved it” is just as worthless as “I hated it” when it comes to feedback.

Remember you’re allowed to have your own emotions about reviews/critiques. Everybody has their moments, but don’t take out your frustrations or anger on your reviewer if you don’t agree with something they said. Not only will this make your reviewer a worthless one for you in the future—because you reacted badly when it was you who asked for help and gave permission to be honest—but your friendship could suffer because of broken trust.

What to do with negative feedback

Two women, at sunset, holding their arms up in the air to create a small heart with their hands between them

Writing is personal. It always will be. When you get—and it will happen—feedback that you don’t like or don’t agree with, take a moment. Take two. Take as many as you need (and seriously, this can be days sometimes) and then read the feedback you got again with as much emotional distance as you can muster. Most of the time, the feedback has a point. And maybe you knew that the first time you read it but didn’t want to accept it. That’s okay! What’s important is you got there and you can either rewrite, revise, or edit until you’re ready for another try at feedback.

Never throw your project away. Sometimes, we get feedback that makes us feel absolutely awful. Maybe it was one more bad thing on top of a pile of bad things, but when this happens, people have a tendency to scrap whole projects. Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to press delete these days. Resist the urge! Put that feedback and that project aside in a drawer somewhere for a couple weeks (or months, if it’s an entire manuscript) and work on something else. Then come back with an open mind when you feel a little better and are more separated from your initial feelings by time. Nothing is a lost cause.

Editing and revising can be stressful, yes, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your confidence in yourself. I hope you’ve found the first entry for Anything But the Red Pen helpful and, hopefully, encouraging!

~ Anna