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A lot of people who know me know I like to read, I read a lot of different things, and I read quickly. I also like to post about what I read on Twitter or my Goodreads profile.

The problem is, people seem to mistake my ability to read quickly and the fact that I have read things in a number of genres (although I do have preferences, but reading fast means I just get through more books than a lot of people, so I have time to read from a greater variety of genres and sources) for the idea that I will read just about anything tossed my way.

This means I get well meaning people I know asking me to read their (often) unpublished work, or their self-published work and for me to give them my opinion. I've realized this often means they basically want to use me as a free editing service. This isn't something I'm interested in doing, and I don't want to get into a place where if I do read their work, where they expect me to give them free advice on how to make it better, or what have you. I also do have some sort of mental selection process - so I might not even be interested in their book at all.

I've tried outright refusal by just telling them I won't read it, which usually ends up with them nagging me because they feel I should as a show of friendship, or causing fights about how I don't value the time and effort they have made in writing the work. I've tried stating it's not of interest to me, which only works if it isn't in a genre I actively read - otherwise, they'll push back. I've tried saying I don't have time, but since I read so many other things (and this is visible to anyone who sees my Goodreads updates), they get mad that I have time for other books, but not theirs.

I've also tried limiting myself to only reading the first chapter or so of something, to see how I feel about it, or to placate someone. This usually ends up in people telling me "well, you started, might as well finish, right?" or claiming I didn't get to the "good bits" if I say it's not to my liking.

I'm trying to find a way I can avoid reading things that I have no interest in (either because the book isn't appealing or I don't want to get into the free editing trap) without causing ridiculous rifts in my friendships.

I don't work in any sort of writing/editing/publishing related field (I currently work in tech support), I don't have a lot of people who follow me on GoodReads or Twitter because of my reviews or anything, and I don't get paid for anything I read or maybe review. When I do write reviews on Goodreads, it's often just like the star rating and maybe a sentence or two if something really struck me (good or bad). On Twitter, I usually just tweet when I particularly like a book or a particular passage really struck me, but again, I don't have a lot of followers and I am not really intending to be like a serious contender in the book review world, I just share about things I like in the books I read the same way I'd share on Twitter about movies I liked or random cute animals I've seen.

Is there some sort of tactful approach I could use here, beyond what I've already tried?

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I'm like you in that I love to read in my free time and I would feel exactly how you do now if I was in your situation. For me, the reason I'd be opposed is because I feel I wouldn't be able to properly enjoy the reading if I had to be keeping an eye out for problems the entire time.

If you feel the same way, you should turn them down by not focusing on their work, but on the internal reasons you're against being an editor instead (essentially, it's not you, it's me). This work is their baby after all the time they've spent on it. Emphasize the reason you wouldn't want to read it isn't because the work might be rough or subpar, but because reading as an editor takes away the fun of reading. If you have to focus on critiquing the work the entire time you're reading, you can't immerse yourself in the world like you want to.

If they follow up that they don't want you to focus on critiquing, but to read the story and just give impressions afterwards, you can insist that no matter how hard you try to ignore it, knowing that this is an unfinished work will cause you to analyze it in ways that will pull you out of the story and ruin the fun for you. Stick to your guns and reaffirm that reading unpublished work isn't fun for you like other reading is.

To soften the blow (and if it's truthful), let them know that if they get published and are done making revisions, you'd be happy to buy a copy! You can also redirect them to one of the many online writing communities where they could post their story and get hundreds of random-internet-people-eyes on it in no time!

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I have experienced similar situations often - not just with myself but with friends who work in various forms of media too. People who do actually create great books, music, art etc are usually a bit nerdy themselves, but self-aware so as to have a filter on what is good and bad. But the fans they attract don't always have the same filter, and often have a go at creating something of their own that is amateurish at best.

On the bright side of things, you seem to attract creative people as friends. Even if their writing is terrible.

They obviously see you as some kind of expert, even if you are not. I would suggest that you can capitalise on their opinion of you to achieve your goal. See, if they think your opinion on books is really so valuable then you can act like an elitist snob and they won't be surprised.

I am basing my suggested approach on the method that seems to work for my friend who is an established comic artist. People love his work, he always has a queue for sketches and autographs at comic cons. But if someone asks him to comment on their artwork he just says "No". He doesn't tell them it is rubbish, he is just firm from the outset that he isn't going to look at it, and people seem to respect it.

Just say:

Thanks, but I'm not going to read your book.

When they ask why, say:

I don't want to have to tell you that I don't like it, it would be awkward.

If the person is a genuinely close friend that you don't want to offend, then hold this thought and persist with it. Just say that you value their friendship and you wouldn't want it to become awkward if you had to be honest with them and say you didn't enjoy their book. Actually, in the case of really close friends you ought to be able to tell them the truth and say you're too busy to get involved as a proof-reader, or whatever.

But lets assume they are only acquaintances, and they persist with questions like how do you know you won't like it?

I only read published books. If you already think it is good enough to be published, get a publisher, then I promise I will read it.

If you say all this with a smile and some humour, worst case scenario is they will think you are a bit of a snob. But if they are already putting you on a pedestal as some kind of professional book critic then they really ought to expect this kind of reaction. After all, this is exactly how any publisher would react if someone threw an unsolicited manuscript at them. In fact you could tell them so.

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I am an amateur writer and what would work for me would be a plain no, tactfully and friendly brought. But some people can be persistent.

What these people rarely think about is that reading a book is a substantial time investment most of the time, even if you are an avid reader. For them to ask you to simply finish their draft since you read one chapter is not really fair in my opinion. I think it is a good idea though to offer to read a small part of it, a scene or a couple of paragraphs. Tell them to send you their best and worst scene in their opinion and then you can give your opinion on it. That should be more than enough for them.

I don't think you should do free editing work, but there is also a difference in reading a piece of text and giving your thoughts on it or actually editing it and proofreading it. The first goes more into the story, the style of writing and how it is brought. The second is more technical and requires more knowledge.

I also think these people come to you since they assume you are a good pointer for if their book is good or not since you read a lot. Perhaps it could help if you point out to them that your preferences are a personal thing and can/ will vary a lot from reader to reader.

Lastly, while you should stay friendly and tactful, don't be afraid to stand your ground. Even if you are close friends, you have no obligation to read an entire book written by them.

What I suggest saying are things along the lines of this:

I would love to read a small part of it, say a scene or a couple of paragraphs, but I don't have the time right now to commit to fully reading your work I am afraid.

I am currently nose deep in X books, so it would be hard to blend yours in right now. optional(I could fit in a few paragraphs ladida)

Really nice that you finished your first draft/published your book/ whatever! But I am not sure I am the right person for feedback like this. Even though I read a lot, I read leisurely and for my own pleasure, I am not really good at or keen on providing detailed feedback. I am also not sure if your work will fit in with my general interest/ genre preferences. I think there are other people/ communities you could go to for this.

As for the communities, there is a bunch of them where you can converse with other writers, professional or amateur, and can get feedback. Getting a beta reader base is harder, but that is for a reason. You are asking people to read your book which is full of errors, mistakes and probable loopholes and such. That takes the enjoyment out of reading for a lot of people.

You could point them to the various writing subreddits or discord channels as well. But again, don't be afraid to be very stern and clear in your answer, just stay friendly.

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There is an important psychological principle; you might check if you violated this: If you say NO, say it in such a way that there is not the slightest hope about you changing your mind. For example you can say "I never, ever, read unpublished books, and I never will, and I never will change my mind". That is quite clear. You will have very little comeback with this. One or two repeats at most should do the job permanently. If you say "I don't really have much time right now, maybe sometime later", that gives them hope and they will come back again and again and again.

Don't let people down gently. They will come back for more. Say absolutely clearly "NO". This doesn't have to be rude, of course.

  • I've been trying to stick with "I don't read unpublished works, sorry." or something to that effect, but often that just gets me a reply along the lines of "I thought we were friends, you should be willing to help a friend" or similar. I appreciate the advice about being very clear, though. I try to be! – Ash Apr 13 '18 at 12:43
  • I once responded to a request like this by evading and making vague promises and eventually got backed into a corner where I had no choice but to read the thing but I didn't put much effort into it so I gave half-baked feedback which they ended up obsessing about and changing the book because of it and it went on and on and on and on and I wish I had just said no but it felt impossible to do so. gnasher729's brutal solution is correct. – Duke Leto Aug 3 '18 at 22:14
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I too read a lot. Here is how I would handle it:

1) If the book is on a topic that I don't care for, and I have zero interest

I would tell them straight out:

I'm sorry, but that I am not a good person to judge this book because (genre X) is not my thing. You need to ask someone who is into that genre.

Period. End of story. They're just wasting their time, and mine.

2) If I really don't want to invest much time

I would ask to see the book, and give it a 10-20 minute skim. This is often enough to give feedback on their writing style and overall organization, and isn't an excessive amount of time to spend helping a friend.

You can give honest feedback, for example:

I think you write well ... but, to be honest, nothing in the first couple of pages really grabbed me. I'm not really a fan of this kind of work, so I'm perhaps not the best person to ask, but perhaps you could lead off with something more eye-catching?

or

I think your concept is sound, but I couldn't get past your writing style. I think you need to get a writing coach slash editor who can help you string your ideas together better, and improve your verbiage.

3) If I'll do it, as long as I get paid.

Make this sound like a completely reasonable, even obvious solution. This is often the easiest way to stop "friends" in their tracks.

I would help you out, but it would take up so much time I couldn't possibly do it for free. If you think it's worth it, I would charge (X) per hour.

If they want professional help, they can cough up some dough. A true friend won't try to get something from you for nothing.

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