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Don’t Listen to Your Friends and Family, Writer’s Edition

I read my friend Ken’s blog because I feel bad for him.

No, not really. I read Ken’s Inkling Media blog because he consistently delivers good information about social media, networking, and building a platform. (I talk to him on Twitter because I feel sorry for him.)

This week, one of the posts on the Inkling blog was titled, Don’t Listen to Your Friends and Family. Ken tells the story of a local business who invested money in print advertising, and felt they’d hit a home run when their close friends and family “really liked” the ad. It was a big hit with people close to the business owners. Problem was, none of the, you know, actual customers had seen the ad. (This SAME THING happens ALL THE TIME with political advertising, by the way. Political wonks go gaga, but the average voter can’t even remember seeing the ad.)

I read that blog post just after replying to a request to give a quick read and critique of a friend-of-a-friend’s non-fiction book in progress. The manuscript had some potential, but in my opinion, it wasn’t yet ready for prime time. I wrote up a couple of pages of notes and suggestions to refine the work. My friend agreed with my assessment, but was looking for a gentle way to tell the writer there was still work to do. The writer, her friend, was thinking maybe this manuscript was ready for a publisher.

It’s understandable. Many people who care for and love this author have taken a look at the work (which is a very personal and emotional tale) and those folks all resonated with the story. They were able to overlook the literary shortcomings, because they were already invested in the story.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, what a great resource for a writer to have: a group of friends and family who are passionate about her work!

But, it isn’t enough. We need another sort of reader to help us find the “white hot center” of our work, to help us refine our art, to beat down the bad literary habits and amplify our strengths.

I summed it up in my email response to my friend. I told her to encourage this author, reassure her that there is a strong foundation and that the hard work of fine-tuning the manuscript will only make the story that much better. But, in the end, we need more than just beloved cheerleaders:

Every writer needs a group of people who don’t love them unconditionally, who will lend an even-handed eye to the work. Otherwise, we become the literary equivalent of the person auditioning for American Idol who screeches and wails and breaks down in tears sobbing, “But my mom and my friends and all of my church people tell me I’m great!” There’s a disconnect. They are deaf to their own true voice. It can feel like that, when editors/agents/publishers keep telling us “NO, NO, NO!” and all we’ve heard from our loved ones is “You’re brilliant!!”

Do you have a trusted group of readers? Do you have people who can recognize where you are excelling and call you on to greatness? Not ruthless, evil, destructive readers, certainly, but not just your best friend, either. Or your mom. Or mine.

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