It may come as a surprise, but it is not always easy for editors to give critical feedback on manuscripts. While I believe the editorial mind is geared toward quickly noticing what's missing, wrong, or out of place, there's also a human on the other side of that mind who knows what it is like to receive criticism on creative work. We understand how delicate the creative process is, so not many of us are excited about delivering what some may feel is bad news. I mean, not all of us are sadists. And all the adults in the room know that constructive criticism delivered in the right way is a blessing, a life-saver, and a gift.
Speaking for myself, though, the space between my pinpointing what's wrong with a manuscript and delivering that news to the writer can be a bit torturous. Every editor is different, but I've recently discovered why it becomes a chore for me.
There are mental and emotional hurdles I have to overcome when it comes to getting in the groove of giving critical feedback on a manuscript. Being dead-center of this process as I write this blog post, I've identified two of the major ones.
Hurdle #1: Not having all the answers
I think that somehow I have to solve the issues that I find. But I don't, actually, have to have all the solutions. Though I can't help having some—and I offer them. My main role, however, is to point them out, state what I think will work better, and let the writer resolve them.
This sometimes creates a stop for me, being a solution-oriented type. I can get stuck on how to fix what issues I see. Generally speaking, it is sort of against my personal rule to point out issues without having ideas toward a solution. In this case, though, editor and writer are tag-teaming and using complementary strengths—writer as creator, editor as creative manager. Or something like that.
Hurdle #2: Not wanting to crush the creative spirit
Also, I care about how a writer feels about themselves and their abilities through the writing process. I also know that they don’t want to let me or the publisher down. And I know what it takes to create something. These are very delicate emotions and processes. I am not looking to destroy anyone, so I choose to be careful with how I deliver my feedback. I want the writers to keep wanting to write. Just because I first draft wasn’t awesome doesn’t mean they’ve failed. I want them to know that. So it may take me a bit to get up the courage to, in some ways, deliver bad news that I hope will be received as a help and as a blessing.
Here is how I jump the hurdles:
- Accept that I have a job to do: deliver a great book to the marketplace. My role as a gatekeeper is critical to what is made available to the public.
- Accept the writer needs my feedback, is looking for my feedback, to finish their assignment.
- Make a list of what I think needs work. Write it out bluntly. This is the easy part.
- If I have a solution, add it to the item as a possible fix. If I don’t, on to the next issue.
- With a freelance writer, restate in writing the vision of the project I had upon pitching the concept. With an author, restate their vision for writing the book and add to it my belief for how their work can touch readers.
- Rewrite everything in as positive and encouraging way I can, as if I am talking to a delicate little flower, whose petals may fall off if I stop smiling or raise my voice one decibel. Reinforcing my belief in the writer that they have what it takes, I make sure my communication is still clear and honest. People are delicate and I don’t mean that we are weak and incapable. We have to be careful with each other.
- Deliver all to the writer humbly, yielding the next steps to them and their expertise as creators.
- Dust my shoulders off and on to the next one.
Because I write as well, my two sides—editor vs. writer—are sometimes at war while I am working on a piece. But when I'm an editor, I'm an editor. When I'm a writer, I'm a writer.
I am grateful for having opportunities to work on both sides. It’s an advantage, and I pray I use it wisely and with compassion. But also, keeping things one hundred, I have to put the sides in their places in order to effectively serve the assignment.
Boundaries and lanes and staying in them are important.