This week, Clark and Peter interview Joanna Penn, thriller author and host of The Creative Penn podcast. I went through Joanna’s archives to find some helpful items about editing, and I’ve collected some suggestions from her and her guests about giving and receiving criticism.
As editors or authors, we need to work with criticism. When we develop the skill to offer helpful criticism and its complement of assessing and applying it we can better serve our clients and our own work.
As editors, we aim to give constructive criticism that will improve the book in front of us and help the author. We know from our own life and work that criticism can be hard to take. Writing is the child of our intellect, so we need to approach others’ work with respect and consideration: We are paid to be honest, but we can also be kind.
When we think of editing, we think mostly about catching mistakes or elements that can be improved. But constructive criticism includes what’s working as well. Be sure to include what you like about the piece and where the writer worked with a deft hand.
Understand your own limitations and preferences. You come from a frame of reference (where you grew up, what you studied in school, the books you read); you also have preferences. All of this informs your assessment of someone else’s work.
Helpful feedback uses appropriate criteria. You shouldn’t judge a thriller by the standards of a romance. Different considerations are important depending on the genre and the author’s style. Check out whether the author has specific preferences.
Constructive criticism is specific. Consider these two examples: This sentence is awkward. This is an opinion that may be valid, but isn’t necessarily helpful. This sentence is awkward because it’s written in the passive voice. When we describe the problem instead of offering a bare opinion, we give the writer a path to fix it. If you’re confused about why something doesn’t feel right, check into it or mark the spot and return to it with fresh eyes later.
Offer suggestions—if the author wants them. Some clients simply want to know where and what the problems are so they can develop their own solutions. Others want an idea or two to help them get started. Find out what your client wants up front.
Answer questions from the author. It’s not that you have to justify your every edit, but authors who want to improve their writing may have questions about editing decisions. Be willing to talk it through with them.
Finally, follow up and request feedback on the process of working with you. Find out which suggestions were particularly helpful, and what can be improved.
As writers who send our words into the world, feedback is inevitable. We hire editors for their professional opinions, and our readers leave comments and reviews. Learning to value criticism is vital to improving our writing and maintaining our mental health. Assessing and applying constructive feedback are skills that writers can cultivate. Practice and being mindful throughout the process can help us make the most of the revision process.
When your editor returns the manuscript to you, read it all the way through. Chances are you’ll experience difficult feelings, even if your editor has been sensitive and given you positive feedback. Get through the emotional fog before you assess the advice. As Joanna has said, “Bawl your eyes out.” Then put it away for a bit. Let it rest. Do something fun; better yet, go write something.
When you come back to it , stay open and curious. Assume that the editor is offering constructive criticism. Read it for content and then ask yourself these questions:
- What is the editor actually saying or suggesting?
- Does it ring true? Have you heard this criticism from other sources?
- If you don’t agree, is there anything else you can learn from the comment?
- How can you apply the edits or suggestions?
- What are your questions for the editor?
As you make decisions about whether to accept or reject the changes, keep a list of problem areas and make these part of your self-editing in future projects. Being able to spot the problem is the first step to eliminating it.
How do you know when you’ve gotten bad feedback? You shouldn’t feel belittled or your work disrespected. If you’ve moved through the initial emotional reaction, then your gut can probably tell you whether the edits are designed to improve the book. Still feeling unsure? Ask a fellow writer to look at a particular comment.
Your Mission for the Week
Think about how you give and receive criticism. Is there one step or suggestion mentioned above that you can apply? Do you have other practices in editing or receiving feedback that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment to let us know.
- Check out Joanna Penn’s page on editing and editors.
- In a separate post, Joanna talks about how to take criticism.
- Read editor and author Jen Blood’s answers to questions about editing and writing tips.
- In this episode, Joanna talks with poet, creative coach, and author Mark McGuinness about resilience and how to deal with criticism.