The Flattery of Friends Doth Not a Writer Make

I just finished critiquing a story for an aspiring author who was very surprised at the feedback he received. In contacting me, he said he had written several novels he hadn’t yet tried to publish. He wanted to add some polish to one before sending it out to agents, hence his decision to reach out.

I read the first chapter, which held a lot of promise, and accepted him as a client. But when I got as far as Chapter Two, it was as if a different man had done the writing. Characterization and emotion were gone from the document. Even the stunning descriptions and vivid verbs that had punctuated the first chapter disappeared in a hodgepodge of verbosity and grammar gaffes.

And it went downhill from there. Large chunks of the story were missing. The main character never evolved. And the author had based his writing decisions on whether something was fun to write about (survival skills and herbology, his hobbies) rather than if an addition moved the action forward or revealed character (the two main justifications for including anything in a story).

When I emailed my critique, he wrote back saying he had just read what I sent him and taken two Nexiums. He accepted the feedback in humorous good spirits, but clearly my words had come as a surprise and been hard to swallow. He had shown the manuscript to several friends before he sent it to me. They all told him it was great and he should have it published. His wife had also been most encouraging. He was set up to believe the novel was almost perfect and needed only a copy edit before it was up to publication standards. How could his self-evaluation have been so off, and also the opinion of his friends and family?

This is the lament of many a discouraged, aspiring novelist. Story writing looks so easy. It seems like anyone with a good tale in mind should be able to put it on paper and have something to sell. But the craft of story writing is subtle and nuanced. Like playing a piano, it calls for study and practice. Like gymnastics, it’s way harder than it looks.

The main concern of friends, when we ask for their opinion of our writing, is not to offend or to hurt us. They want to be supportive and to encourage our dreams. So they tend to exaggerate their praise and rarely give a really truthful response. They see our potential, focus on that, and neglect to tell us that we’ve still got a lot to learn and a lot of work to do. Then, when we approach a professional editor for critiquing, we’re shocked to learn the truth. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but necessary. The flattery of friends doth not a writer make.

So if you’re an author with a story you think is ready to publish, don’t be surprised if the editorial critique comes back showing it’s not yet at the level you perceived it to be. Ninety percent of the time, it’s not. It doesn’t mean you don’t have talent. It doesn’t mean you should scrub your dream of being an author. It only means it’s harder than it looks and you have more work to do than you thought. Expect a heavy critique, and be pleasantly surprised if you get a lighter one. Most people don’t. Most writers think they’re way further along than they are. But with a critique from a qualified editor, you’ll become aware of your blind spots and learn what you need to do to overcome your writing flaws. That will move you one giant step closer to getting published.


Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional