The Help Desk: "Come into my parlor," said the writer to her friend

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My best friend is a terrible writer. She gave me a draft of her first novel and it’s just unreadable. I can only get a few pages in before I have to make a stiff drink or play a game on my phone or go to sleep. I’ll never finish reading the book. What kind of honesty do I owe her? She doesn’t think she’s the next Margaret Atwood or anything like that, but I suspect she thinks she’s pretty good for an amateur. (She isn’t.)


Dear Anne,

This is why all my best friends are spiders. A faceful of eyes and a groper's paradise of arms, yet they're very lazy writers and readers – they almost universally prefer watching time lapse videos of animals decomposing to books. In fact, it's one of the few things my best friends and my daughter have in common (that and a pact to eat me face first if I die in my sleep).

My point is, your friend should know better than to make you read her manuscript. It would be like inviting you to come watch her practice her tuba for a few hours instead of inviting you to a concert like a decent human being. The only people who are obliged to read writers' manuscripts are other writers. That's what writing groups are for – they are the literary equivalent of a group of spiders watching time lapse videos of animals decomposing. As a crowd they seem to enjoy it, even if it is macabre time waster.

So what do you tell your friend? It depends on how polite you feel like being. I would start with, "It's impressive that you wrote so many words" and maybe end with "but I don't want to read them because they suck."

But again, my best friends are spiders. You could try "... but I don't think I'm your best audience, have you thought about joining a writing group?"

If she really presses you for an opinion, again, be honest: "This is a rough draft, so it's rough. I'll be happy to give it another try once it's published."