How to avoid hurt feelings and battered relationships when friend turn to you for a close read

By Rachel Toor
As featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, January 6, 2009

A long time ago, when I was an acquisitions editor, I gave a contract to an author for his book. Then I left publishing. But the author and I had forged an electronic friendship, and we continued to be in touch. In fact, for a number of years, we exchanged e-mail messages practically every day, often several times a day. We got to know each other, learned about each other’s lives and families, discussed books, movies, and food, and even had some fierce disagreements (he is a frightful barbecue snob). Over the course of five years or so, we met in person maybe three times, but I considered him a good friend.

He would send me things he’d written, and I always responded with over-the-top enthusiasm and praise. He is wicked smart, a lucid writer, and has a good nose for interesting topics. I was a fan. Then I started writing, and he gave me excellent feedback on my drafts. When I talked to him about a book proposal I had in mind, he first told me it was the stupidest idea he’d ever heard. Then he helped me think it through.

He’d been working on a new book, which I thought sounded terrific. I was eager to see it, and he sent me the manuscript. I assumed (and very likely he did, too) that I would love it and would fire off yet another gushy groupie response.

But I didn’t love it. I went through it once and set it aside. I thought there were serious, but solvable, problems. Finally I got around to doing a close read and writing up my comments. I felt guilty for waiting so long and rushed to get something to him. Because I was no longer a professional editor, because we’d become friends, and because I knew he knew how much I admired and respected him, I wrote up my remarks without the usual prefatory comments about the many things that were working well, and instead skipped right to the critique.

Big mistake.

What I thought was a dispassionate critique he read as a personal attack. We went through a few days of horrid e-mail exchanges in which he wondered why I was trying to crush him, why I was doing this to him, and I begged him to remember that our friendship was more important than my opinion about the manuscript. I was possibly wrong about the content of my remarks and clearly wrong in the tenor. His fury kept on unabated.

At the end of the week he sent a gracious note apologizing for the ugly things he’d said. This all happened not long after 9/11, and his wife had just had a baby that came out, as he put it, “gray and floppy.” He’d had no sleep and had not been in a good place to get negative comments. He was sorry he’d responded as he did.

By that time it was too late for me. He kept e-mailing, but I stopped responding. I had made a mistake, he had made a mistake, but I no longer trusted him with my feelings.

Every so often, he’d pop up on my screen and ask how I was doing. I responded with uncharacteristic terseness. I was always touched by his willingness to keep trying, but it took me years to soften. Then he came to my town for a conference and we had a companionable cup of coffee. We had followed each other’s careers. He told me that he’d acknowledged me in his book.

It’s still painful to read. “Rachel Toor,” he wrote, “advised me, read an early draft of the manuscript, and gave me some brutally candid remarks, which, once I recovered from the urge to slit my wrists, made the tone of the final version less shrill and moralistic.” While we haven’t quite made it back to where we were, we’ve reconnected. When I was in his city recently, I got to meet that new baby, now a delightful girl. I am glad to have him once again in my life.

But after our contretemps, I became anxious about reading friends’ manuscripts. My responses are often critical; my tone, a reflection of my personality, can come off as abrasive and harsh. My friends know this, and it’s easier to take when deployed against a movie or a book by someone we don’t know. But I live in a world where people read one another’s stuff.

In academe we find a community of people who are interested in the same (sometimes arcane) issues and topics as we are. In graduate classes we gather with those who share our passions and want to specialize in the same fields. Our friendships, often forged over feelings of unworthiness and lots of beer, can lead to decades of mutually helpful manuscript exchanges.

The dissertation adviser is a dedicated reader — someone paid to train you individually. How many other industries can boast that kind of mentoring? It’s not very cost-effective, but it is a powerful way to help people enter the profession. A friend of mine told me that 25 years after earning his Ph.D., and in the prime of a successful academic career, he still trembles when he sends something to his former adviser.

As we develop as thinkers, writers, and scholars, we broaden our search for readers. We go to conferences and hand out unpublished manuscripts like calling cards. We read something smart in a journal and take the opportunity to e-mail the author a draft of something we think she may be interested in. She is, and sends back sheaves of helpful comments.

Wouldn’t it be nice if academic exchanges always worked out that well?

The reality, however, is that graduate students are as likely to be consumed with jealousy as they are to consume great quantities of alcohol. They compete for grant money, for fellowships, for the approbation of the faculty. They tear one another’s work apart, sometimes with the intent of making it better, but just as frequently because humans sometimes feel that debasing someone else makes them seem superior.

Things are equally imperfect in graduate training. Some dissertation advisers spend lots of time with their students. But many are unavailable, unhelpful, and uninterested in anyone’s work but their own. Sometimes when you send a manuscript to a lofty scholar, you get back comments; often, not. It’s pretty easy to blow off reading something by a stranger.

A good critic is hard to find, so we turn to our friends. What happened between my friend and me may have been extreme, but I don’t think it was anomalous. For as many authors who thank colleagues and friends for serving as readers, my guess is that plenty of writers have wanted to kill theirs.

How often are feelings hurt and relationships battered when friends edit friends? And how do you avoid or minimize those conflicts?

First, by responding promptly. During the time that I was not reading his manuscript, my author friend was surely still working on it. Having someone respond to an old draft can be tiresome. On the other hand, doing a careful critique burns hours and brain wattage. Both sides of the exchange have to be honest and realistic about deadlines. I assumed that I would want to get to my friend’s manuscript immediately. I did. But then, when I didn’t like it, I put it aside. That was a mistake.

The second mistake I made was, because we were friends, I didn’t sugarcoat my criticisms. I dispensed with the editorial niceties I had used with my authors. We were beyond that, I thought. Since his feedback to me was often blunt, I assumed that it was OK to be candid with him.

I should have asked my friend what he wanted from me, and asked him to guide my reading. Did he care about the tone, or should I focus only on the argument? Did he want line-editing? Proofreading? Just a hearty “bravo”?

There was no way for me to know that his world was falling apart when I sent my comments. That was just bad timing.

Now, when friends ask me to read things for them, I try to be clear and honest. If I have the time, and the inclination, I tell them that if they ask for my opinion, they’re going to get it. I’m not a cheerleader. A number of times my friends have thanked me for reminding them of this and have decided against showing me their work. I give the kind of feedback I hope to receive; I yam what I yam.

Unlike with competitive graduate students, or scholars staking out the same piece of lawn, the successes of our friends are, to a degree, our own. When people we care about publish a book or a journal article, we crow. And there’s a real pleasure in feeling that you helped out, even if it was only by catching typos. Plus, it’s great to have an IOU in the favor bank.

As members of a community, we are fortunate to be able to read one another’s work. It pays to remember, though, that even for academics, whose jobs are to be discerning and exacting, rigorous analysis can sting.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane. Her newest book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com. For an archive of her previous columns, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/page_proof.