Because of my job, I somewhat regularly meet Persons of Interest. I don't like to make a big deal about that, because it's just part of my work, and Persons of Interest are mostly normal folks like you and me. Anyway, a few years ago, I became engaged in a rather long conversation with a rather well-known writer. This person seemed to be terribly nice, and I really enjoyed speaking with them, and left the conversation delighted to have met them, and resolved to go read one of their books.
Imagine my dismay when I purchased one of their books, and about five pages in, had realized that it was so bad that it was practically unreadable. At least, for me. It had poorly-worded sentences and scenarios that were very poorly researched (I say as someone who is extremely familiar with what those scenarios would be like in real life).
I have experienced the opposite, too, when I have read a book I loved with all my heart, and then met the author behind the book and discovered that they were not a very nice person.
I'm still not sure which is worse. In some way, the latter is easier. As much as it stinks to discover that someone who inspires you is a jerk, it's also easy to either distance yourself from them as a person as long as you don't have to interact with them every day, or to just ignore their existence completely if you decide they're so irredeemable that you no longer want to read their work.
But what do you do when you meet a wonderful person, and are interacting with them in a way when their writing, or art, or other creative endeavor is necessarily going to be part of the conversation, and what they create just stinks? I'm not even talking about stuff that you can tell is good but isn't to your personal taste. I'm talking about stuff that you know on an objective level is making basic mistakes that the person in question should not be making!
We all know this happens-- it's just that people don't talk about it in public very often. I'm sure it happens in every field, practical and creative. For every writer who is a lovely person but a terrible writer, there is probably a chemist who is a lovely person but a terrible chemist, who strikes terror in the hearts of the other chemists because they adore this person but can't stand working with them because they make three times as much lab work for everyone else because they mess up their measurements. Or something-- I will admit I know very little about chemistry, so I'm kind of bullshitting here, and I know I already called that successful writer on that up a few paragraphs. But you get my idea!
The issue, though, is that if you have a bad chemist, it's quantifiable. You don't have to smile and lie through your teeth about how much you love their chemistry, because it comes down to statistics and results. With writing, it isn't. I mean, the person I mentioned above is a published and successful author! And plenty more people are convinced that they are wonderful authors, but just...aren't. Their prose might make your teeth stand on end, to mix a metaphor. Their essays may be disjointed and lack cogency. Their poetry...well, let's not even talk about bad poetry.
And even if it's not a matter of taste, even if someone's writing is truly awful, it's unlikely that anyone is going to tell them so-- because as much as it's easy to tell a jerk that they're terrible, it's really hard to tell someone whom you genuinely like that they're bad at something. Or even that you just plain don't like what they do.
And, you know, you probably don't want to. Because you know it's going to hurt their feelings in a lot of cases, and hurting the feelings of someone you genuinely like and care about is generally a good thing to avoid.
But what are your options? Do you lie? Tell them you really liked what they wrote, or that they're a wonderful writer?
That can ring just as false. We all receive those comments that we look at sidelong and think, 'hmm, did that person even READ what I just wrote?' And I think that when we're tempted to lie, even if it's one of those nice white lies to encourage someone we like, the lies often come out sounding flat, even if they don't sound outright false. A lot of non-specific adjectives like "wonderful" or "powerful" or "well-written" or adverbs like "beautifully" can sound this way, although I genuinely believe most of the time they are used in earnest, it gets kind of suspect when someone uses them all the time, everywhere, or repeatedly for the same person.
I don't think there's any need to tell someone who is a terrible writer that they're a terrible writer, but I also don't think there's any need to tell them there's a wonderful writer if you think that's a lie. It doesn't mean you can't leave a thoughtful and constructive yet non-critical comment to them!
How can you do this? There are a few ways:
--Look for a specific part that you think is stronger than the rest. Everyone hits on a gem sometimes. Comment on that specific part. Then you are helping the person you are commenting to, by letting them know what their strongest writing is, in your opinion, while also making it clear that you read and thought about their writing.
*Warning: resist the temptation to use this as an excuse to pay a backhanded compliment. "For me, the strongest part of this piece was when..." is a nice thing to tell someone. "I really liked the font and the space between the letters" is kinda jerky, unless the person in question is doing something experimental with fonts and negative space.
--Okay, so maybe their writing is just bad, all the way through. Is there something else about what they've written that you like? Maybe you thought it was an inspired idea, or maybe they took a risk by approaching a story from an unexpected viewpoint. Maybe they chose an interesting source to base their writing on. You can tell them this, and once again, it will be completely honest on your part, and show them that you've read and thought about their writing.
--Okay,so as much as you love and adore this person, they're not just crappy; they're crappy AND uninspired. You honestly can't find a single redeeming thing about what they've written. What do you do now? Well, what is their writing about? Is it something you have a basis for comparison with? For example, suppose it is a story about their cat's hairball. Do you have a cat who hairballs a lot? Do you have a cat at all? Do you have another type of pet? Do you know someone with a pet? Turn it into an opportunity to engage in some camaraderie with someone whose conversation you enjoy, even if you don't think they're the greatest writer in the world. Sharing anecdotes or feelings or anything at all is how we make friends!
To be perfectly fair, these are the same kinds of comments I like to try to leave to people whose writing I like. Everyone loves to get thoughtful comments that make it clear the commenter is engaged with their writing. It's not always possible-- sometimes you're out of brainpower, and other times, it would take too long to leave a longer comment-- but it's really nice when you can. It's just sometimes harder to think in those terms when you're talking about writing that you really had to grapple with just to get through. But it's not impossible.
Is that avoidant? I don't think so. Because just because someone isn't a great writer doesn't mean that they're not great at something else, and it doesn't mean they're not an awesome person to get to know. I tend to find that it's better to encourage people in the things that they are good at than to discourage them in the things they're bad at. Eventually, everyone will find something they're both good at and enjoy-- and who knows? They might just improve and write something you enjoy someday!