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Originally published Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 5:14 AM

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‘Not good enough’: how to critique work from loved ones

Carolyn Hax suggests a book editor make a personal policy to not accept manuscripts from loved ones.

Syndicated columnist

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Dear Carolyn

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

DEAR CAROLYN: What if you are a book editor and expert on the current market, and friends/family/acquaintances are frequently sending you manuscripts? Or asking you to forward them to another publishing contact who could be interested?

Usually I try to sidestep this by telling them to find an agent first, but then I’m asked about agents I know, and ... their stories are never good enough that I feel comfortable with that.

Is this an instance where I just have to be honest about their quality of writing? How do I tell people I love that they’re just not good enough?

— Unsupportive

DEAR UNSUPPORTIVE: You tell all of them that you receive too many manuscripts and other publishing queries from people you know and love to give them all the attention they deserve, so you’ve had to make it your personal policy not to field any of them.

Or, that you have a personal policy not to mix business and friendship.

Or that you have a personal policy not to make yourself miserable, but maybe that’s a little more honesty than your friends were bargaining for.

RE: UNSUPPORTIVE: I understand the idea that telling a family member who’s a writer that his/her work is terrible would be harsh, but if you’re an editor, and you think it’s terrible, there is a good chance other editors may feel the same way. Why not be honest and say, “I personally don’t like this; I don’t think X works, or that Y is written well; etc.”? What are you really saving them from by lying to them about it?

— Anonymous

DEAR ANONYMOUS: I don’t think anyone’s saving anyone, and I don’t think anyone should lie, nor did I advise that. I just think friends and lovers should stay out of the business of critiquing each other’s work, except in cases where it arises organically — say, when they established that critiquing rapport before there was romance, or when both parties truly feel comfortable giving and receiving each other’s constructive criticism.

I also think one critic, even a good and informed one, isn’t even close to the last word. Just think of all the mega-novels lately that a good chunk of the population finds unreadable. If any of these unimpressed readers were the loved one asked to give an opinion, said cash-cow novel might be in the bottom of somebody’s drawer. And since one opinion isn’t everything, why even get the one opinion that might injure a relationship? Let the people on professional footing do the truth-telling (or, I should say, their truth-telling).

DEAR CAROLYN: You wrote in a past column, “She needs you to recognize that you all mistook her good behavior for emotional maturity.” Emotional maturity is a term I see a lot, but how do you define it in this case?

— Anonymous 2

DEAR ANONYMOUS 2: I don’t think it has “cases.” I think there’s a general definition: Being emotionally mature means you’re not reliant on external approval to feel worthwhile, and you’re able to manage feelings well enough to take thoughtful actions instead of just reacting and lashing out.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax. Find her columns daily at www.seattletimes.com/living.

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