I’ve spoken with colleagues many times about the art of working with students on their writing. I’ve had far fewer conversations about the art of reading a colleague’s draft article or book chapter. In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, a creative writing professor describes (here – pay site, but day passes available) her less-than-positive experience when she shared her frank assessment of a colleague’s manuscript:
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”? * * *
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.
I don’t think that niceties and candor are mutually exclusive. The better you know someone, the more frank you can be, but I think it is always helpful to provide an author with feedback on what works well in a draft, in addition to ideas that could be developed, refined, extended, etc.
To the Chronicle commentator’s list of advice, I would add two suggestions. First, ask what the author’s ideal time-frame is and let the author know what your time-frame is. Second (and this is directed at profs with tenure): if an untenured colleague asks you to read a draft and you’ve agreed, please respond. If you find that you actually don’t have time to read the manuscript, say so (even if you already said yes). The worst thing you can do is agree to read a draft and then go radio silent. You may not think it is a big deal, but your junior colleague does.