Posted by on Apr 25, 2012 in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), On Writing: Craft and Commiseration, Playwriting | 0 comments

Example 1. Optical feedback

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You offered to read your friend’s book. Or maybe it was a short story. Or a play. Either way, your friend wrote something and you promised to be a beta reader and give them some feedback.

Except that now you’ve changed your mind. Maybe you’ve since realized that you’re too busy and won’t have time to read it. Maybe the project is awful and you just can’t get through it. Maybe you just plain old forgot and now you’re totally embarrassed to admit it.

Hey, you know what, it happens! Sometimes life doesn’t go exactly how we plan it. But if you need to back out of your critiquing commitments, here’s a few tips for dealing with this change of heart without being a jerk about it. 

  1. Apologize. No matter how epic your excuse for backing out is, you promised something that you aren’t going to be able to deliver on. From the perspective of the friend that you offered to help, you are about to big time screw her over. Your writer friend has been depending on you for your notes, holding up the entire project while she waited for your feedback and will need to scramble to find more readers at the last minute when she finds out you’ve backed out. The least you can do is start out by apologizing for being unable to fulfill your commitment.A simple, genuine “I’m sorry” can make a huge difference. NOTE: That doesn’t mean a passive aggressive fake apologyor blaming your friend. Saying,  “I’m sorry I didn’t get to read this but expecting me to find time to read a whole 15 page story in only a month is pretty freaking unreasonable of you! I’m not always at leisure like you. I’m really busy with a real job.” just makes the situation worse. I get it. You’re feeling defensive because you know you’re letting your friend down but you shouldn’t be taking it out her.
  2. Let your friend know ahead of time if your notes will be late or not coming at all. Many times, friends promise they’ll read something and then, when the deadline comes up and they haven’t finished, they play dead and hide. If you realize, or even just suspect, that you’ll be late in reading something or getting your notes on it to your friend, tell her as soon as you make that realization. If you are going to back-out entirely, the day after the deadline she needed your notes by is downright rude timing. The earlier you tell your friend that you’ve changed your mind about helping, the more time you give her to find a replacement. You may think that you’re avoiding an awkward confrontation by putting it off but you’re actually making it that much worse the longer you wait.
  3. Tell the truth. Instead of giving your friend the run around, just be honest. If you couldn’t get past page 28 because the pace was too slow, tell her! Then she’ll know to take another look at the beginning and rework it. If time just got away from you and you forgot all about the story, tell her so she understands that it’s not that her writing is terrible. Making up an elaborate excuse doesn’t help your friend deal with this frustrating situation any better so just do her the courtesy of telling her the truth.
  4. Doing some of it is better than nothing. Maybe you forgot about the book entirely and won’t have the time to read the whole thing before your friend’s deadline. Read what you can, give notes on that much and just make it clear that you only stopped reading because of the time crunch (because otherwise she’ll assume you stopped there because it was terrible). Maybe you won’t have time to do a line by line analyses of her play but you could write up a quick paragraph of your thoughts on it. Doing something is better than nothing so share what you have even if it’s not 100% finished. Considering that most things take much less time then you think they will, you may discover that you can finish it on time after all.
  5. Could you read it for her later? There’s always room for more feedback on any project. Could you make this failure up to them by promising them a future read after she makes additional edits? If you’ve just had a crazy month but there’s a four day weekend coming up in three days, ask your friend for a week long extension. (Needless to say, forcing your friend to delay another week and STILL flaking out is beyond bad form so you’ll have to absolutely finish on time in this case.) Your friend needed these edits by the deadline she gave you because she was making changes to show to an agent. OK, you missed that deadline but could you promise her a crazy fast turn-around time to, say, read the new version for her in 48 hours once she’s finished? Just understand that by hitting the snooze on this commitment, your reputation and friendship both are really on the line. If you promise and fail to deliver a second time, you’ll be doing some serious damage to your future relationship with this person so this isn’t something that you should promise lightly.
    Lastly, take a serious look at why you offered to do this in the first place. You may have originally offered to read because you thought you should or that you friend would get mad at you if you didn’t but now’s the time to come clean. You may discover that you’ll never be able to commit to helping your friend out in this area or that you simply don’t want to. If you realize that, you need to be upfront about it. Your friend needs to know to look elsewhere for feedback and your stringing her along will only damage things in the long run.

Doing any kind of critique is a very personal thing for both the person giving and getting the feedback. It’s important to think before making a promise to read something because you don’t want to let your friend down. But once you’ve already found yourself in this situation, a little finesse can help you to get out of it without ruining your friendship.

Writers, have you had a beta reader or critique partner back out? What do you wish they would have done to help smooth that situation out?