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Miss Conduct

Advice: What’s the right way to critique a friend’s writing

My friends ask for comments on their writing, but they never seem to like what I say. Is there a secret?

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What is your advice when friends or acquaintances ask for feedback on writing, be it a cover letter or a novel? I try to take into account each requester’s goals and/or personal situations and tailor my feedback accordingly, but I either hurt people’s feelings or am told I am “too” positive.

L.L. / Boston

I’m sorry you’re getting negative feedback feedback! Let’s see if I can help.

We normally think of feedback in terms of work situations — performance reviews and the like — and there are whole books written about how to give it in a useful, productive way (“Thanks for the Feedback” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, for one).

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You, however, are being asked to evaluate how someone’s work — and cover letters are a kind of creative work — matches the writer’s internal, possibly unconscious standards. That is bloody well impossible.

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What your friends want is for you to tell them if what you read is what they meant to write. When people ask for feedback on projects — professional, artistic, domestic, intellectual — they often have some ideal audience in mind. Chances are, this audience is themselves, their mother, or some idol or rival or mentor. It’s almost certainly not you. So you’ll never really scratch their itch.

You already grasp the major imperative, which is to understand the other person’s goals so you can assess whether their work achieves what they want. Beyond that, though, what I see is you doing other people favors and being criticized for it. That’s not kosher!

Set expectations when asked to assess something — how much time do you have to look at what they’ve written? How much expertise on the subject matter do you bring? What aspects do you feel comfortable critiquing? Then offer your feedback and let your friends take it or leave it.

And stop taking their own feedback feedback to heart! Perhaps you’re not the literary muse-cum-psychic that your friends secretly hope for. Did you even want to be?

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

Wondering how to give a critique — or what to do about one you’ve recently received? Miss Conduct can help! Write missconduct@globe.com.