Delivering the bad news when someone’s writing sucks

From Rick:

What do you do when you’ve been asked to read and comment, or review (or edit) a piece where the writing sucks and there’s graceful no way to bow out?

First off, suggesting that someone’s writing sucks sounds rather harsh. I’m not talking about writing a few minor issues or is laden with grammar errors. I’m talking about writing that has multiple major issues, including plot problems, writing that is a challenge to rread because of the problems. Unfortunately, a lot of writers out there haven’t learned how to write well yet, and you’re going to run into them eventually. This post describes possible ways to deal with those problems.

In the most ideal situation, you’ve simply picked up a novel or a short story to read, and after nearly losing your lunch over it, you can toss it aside and forget it ever existed. If you were lucky, it wasn’t something you paid money (at least not much) for. And I’ll wager that you’ve had this happen to you one more than one occasion. In this case, you aren’t bound by any commitment to review it, and my recommendation is that you not attempt to do so, even if you feel bound to warn off other readers. Chances are more than one reviewer has already done that, so don’t tarnish your reputation by slamming someone else’s work.

I used to be among those people who felt that once they began a book, I was obligated to read it to the end. Honestly, I’ve read a few books that did redeem themselves later on more or less such that I didn’t feel I’d totally wasted my time. But at this time in my life, I have many things going on and I have staunchly adopted the philosophy of one friend who once said, “Life’s too short to read bad books.” I give a book just so many pages to grab my attention or else I put it down forever.

Given the proliferation of self-published novels, admittedly it’s a lot harder to find the gems among them (and even traditionally published books aren’t always guaranteed to be good). However, with ready access to reviews and the ability to read a sample on Amazon and elsewhere, we don’t have to waste a lot of time plowing through an entire book in the hope it will turn out to be worth reading. A well-written book should make itself known in the opening.

I recently ran across a reader whose book selection philosophy was simple: ignore any books with fewer than 100 reviews and with less than a 4-star rating. I found myself disagreeing with this approach because I’ve read quite a few excellent novels that had far fewer than 100 reviews at the time I read them.

After thinking about this reader’s criteria, though, I cannot dismiss it completely. While that reader may miss out on some excellent novels, this approach will almost certainly weed out the bulk of the bad ones from consideration. And, truthfully, some of those excellent novels I read did later rack up the reviews.

But I’m straying from the subject of what to do when you can’t simply dismiss the book because you obligated yourself to respond to the author.

I see a couple of possible situations here. The first is that you volunteered to read and review the book, perhaps from a request for readers on Goodreads. If you don’t know the author, you may be able to bow out gracefully by saying that you started it but found it not to your taste. Or, if the book is not horrible, you can endeavor to finish it and give it a charitable review that includes positives (which you should always include in any review you give) and the negatives.

I’ve volunteered to read a few books that I would normally not have read, and that weren’t bad, but they also were not books I could gush over. Those reviews are easy to handle. I simply give a “nice” honest review and let readers read between the lines.

In the second situation, you somehow know the author. My recommendation is the same as above. As long as the book isn’t horrible, give it an honest, review, stress the positives as much as possible, and point out the problems as tactfully as possible.

Here are two problem scenarios.

In the first, you volunteered to read a book that sounded good. It already had a lot of positive reviews (like several hundred!) and an average rating over 4 stars. Lots of the reviews gush about it, and it’s one of those books you started with a positive attitude because of the large number of positive reviews. But you’re only 5% of the way through it and find yourself choking it down.

What do you do? Torture yourself the rest of the way though it? Read another 5% to see if it gets better before deciding on your next action? Contact the author (if he/she provided a review copy) with your thoughts and bow out with something like “Since I cannot in all honesty give this a positive review, I feel it best not to review it at all.” Or do you just put it down without contacting the author? You probably feel obligated to at least contact the author with your feelings since you did volunteer in good faith. Just be honest. Most authors will understand as long as you are gracious.

The second case is not so easy to deal with. The author is a friend (or, worse, a family member). Perhaps it’s someone you’ve dealt with before on some level (even collaborated with successfully in the past), but this particular piece of work is a mess and, in your opinion, needs so much work that the author should either start over or bury it and try something different.

If you’re lucky, it’s not so bad that it requires a burial ceremony and you see a glimmer of hope for it, but it still needs major work to get it off life support. (There’s also the chance that you’re not sure this author has the skill to revive it, and that compounds the problem.)

You have three options:

(1) Be brutally honest and wash your hands of it as graciously as possible. In any case this is probably going to lead to hard feelings.

(2) Be brutally honest, offer constructive suggestions, and offer to read it again after the rework.

(3) Offer to help the author fix it (assuming you’re so inclined, have the ability to help, have the time, and believe it’s worth the effort). Then let the author take the next step.

Keep in mind that I’m not talking about a piece that merely needs a little or a lot of work just to polish it. I’m talking about something that requires a serious investment of time to rewrite and fix, no matter who does the fixing.

The huge caveat here is that you still have to tell this author, tactfully, that the piece does have serious problems and needs a major overhaul (i.e. it really sucks in its current state) and that it’s going to take more than revising sentences and paragraphs and correcting grammar to fix it.

And if this person is a good friend, then your friendship might be severely tested. On the other hand, if your friend is serious about the writing and you can demonstrate that you believe in it, that you want to see it work, and that you’re willing to go the distance, then maybe—just maybe—you won’t lose a good friend in the process. Of course, this depends on how much time you’re willing to invest with this writer.

I’ve had it go both ways and most were successful, resulting in many thank-yous. One, however, ended up badly, and we’re no longer friends. That writer’s problem was ego. You know what I mean: writers who believe they’re much better than they really are and who are not willing to listen. The ego issue may have arisen because someone in authority told these writers they were good, or perhaps they had a story published by a magazine that wasn’t especially discriminating. In any case, these writers are convinced of their talent, and who are you anyway?

I’m not sure I’ve given you all the advice you need in these situations, but I hope I’ve helped. You can rarely overcome ego problems, but if you demonstrate a willingness to help—as opposed to simply slamming the writing—then you can usually avoid disaster. Approach things as positively as possible, point out the problems, and offer constructive, workable suggestions. Most of all, offer to re-read and critique the work (perhaps more than once) as it progresses, and offer positive reinforcement.

Best of luck.


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