No one likes to be told they’re doing something wrong or that you didn’t like their work. It’s hard not to take it personally or get defensive. But that’s the world writers live in. They are constantly being critiqued and edited, so they have to get used to it. Even though most people envision writers as being fragile enough to have a mental break down over a single suggestion, good writers understand that the industry is one of failure, rejection and constant feedback.
They can take it. Really.
However, that doesn’t mean that you, as the editor, can say anything you want when providing feedback. You are still dealing with real people with real emotions, and you need to be courteous and professional.
My first stint as an editor was working with my sister, Alix, on her high school English papers. She was the perfect guinea pig for me to practice my editing skills on. I knew she could take the criticism (and she appreciated the writing lessons), and it let me practice explaining what I needed her to do to make it better.
Since then, I have given feedback to writers in my work at a literary agency and, of course, as an editor for ClearVoice. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
When I think about some of the best and worst feedback I’ve seen, I can’t help but think back to my ‘American Idol’ watching days (I’m not embarrassed to admit it — OK, maybe a little). The three original judges epitomize three of the most common ways people give feedback.
He’s brash, rude and critical just to be critical. He vents his frustrations without worrying about how that might affect the person receiving the criticism. Examples include:
“I thought it was horrible…just horrible. I thought it was like some terrible, ghastly, high school musical performance.”
“You look a little odd, your dancing is terrible, the singing was horrendous, and you look like one of those creatures that live in the jungle with the massive eyes.”
While this type of feedback gets the point across, it is not helpful. When you give Simon Cowell-esque feedback, your writer just feels bad. They don’t have any way of knowing how to improve the content or what to do differently in the future.
She uses a technique known as “the compliment sandwich.” This is where you give a compliment, then give your critique and end with another compliment. In Paula’s case, she usually started off by telling contestants how beautiful they looked, followed by a gentle comment about their singing, and then she repeated how beautiful they were. Paula fell into a common trap of this technique: The needed changes are hidden between a bunch of fluff.
There are great ways to use the compliment sandwich technique, though. The literary agency I worked for had a specific structure to follow when giving authors feedback:
- It started with a summary of the manuscript
- Then you listed which elements you liked the most
- And then you listed any problems you encountered or feedback you wanted to give
This let the agent immediately see what was good (and if there were enough positive aspects to pursue the project) and how much work was needed. This feedback then could be passed along to the author with the acceptance or rejection of the manuscript.
If you’re going to use a compliment sandwich, don’t be a Paula — don’t hide behind niceties and fluff. Rather, give genuine praise where it’s deserved and then get to the point.
Even though it was hard to take Randy seriously after he said “dawg” about a million times, I think he did the best job of giving feedback. He gave compliments when they were earned and politely yet firmly gave criticism when the performance wasn’t up to par. His opinion was always clear and the contestants understood what they needed to work on. Use Randy as your feedback role model. Tell your writers what they’re doing well and what they need to improve. Be nice and maintain a good relationship, but don’t feel like you have to tiptoe around what you need to get done.
Provide plenty of detail
Aim to be as detailed as possible. I like giving examples and a suggestion to show how I would revise the problem. This eliminates a lot of questions and unnecessary back-and-forth messages or emails. Here’s a real-world example of a revision request I gave to a ClearVoice writer about a business article:
“The audience is made up of business owners, so they are going to have an idea of the basics. Instead of telling them to get on Facebook and Twitter, explain how they can do it better. In the ‘Get your audience’s attention’ section, dig deeper into how they can find their target audience and then cater their content to them. For example, do they like long-form, in-depth pieces or do they like short videos that are funny or cool? Explain how they can tailor their content to show off their brand. Offer tools and resources to help.”
I break my feedback down section by section, so nothing is left out and I don’t have to send it back a second (or third) time. Not every article or writer requires this much feedback, though, so be sure to tailor your comments to fit the situation.
Follow best practices
As you practice giving writer feedback, here are a few other points to keep in mind:
- “Critique the story, not the storyteller.” These wise words from Psychology Today could not be more important. Writing is often deeply personal, so you need to make sure that your critique focuses on the article, not the writer. For example, instead of saying that the writer has bad grammar, explain that a particular sentence was confusing because of a grammatical mistake.
- Ask questions. The Socratic Method is a popular teaching technique that enables students to come to the correct answer themselves. When they understand the process, they know how to do it correctly the next time. Ask your writers questions that will:
- Help them conduct better research
- Clarify a confusing section, or
- Clean up their sentence structure
For example, ask them: “How does this help the reader? Can they put this tip into action or do they need more information?”
- Put aside personal preferences. You are not the writer, you’re the editor. It doesn’t matter if you like the genre, topic or writing style, as long as it meets the client’s and/or reader’s expectations. Put aside your personal preferences and don’t change every little thing to make it sound like how you would write it. As long as it makes sense and conveys the right message, leave it alone.
- Remember that you’re giving suggestions. The editor-writer relationship isn’t my-way-or-the-highway. You are giving recommendations and feedback to get the best piece possible, not to be right. Give your writers room to implement your suggestions in their own way, and you might be surprised at how well it turns out.