Giving effective feedback

Authors are sometimes worried about getting feedback on their work because they’re afraid it will be “ripped apart.”

It’s perfectly understandable that they would feel a little nervous about feedback—after all, they want their work to be perfect. They want other people to love it the way they do. But they know there are probably flaws. And they may remember when a teacher or other critic made them feel really bad about their work.

So, no wonder they can approach the editorial process with a little trepidation. And let me be clear: no editor should ever rip an author’s work apart. I don’t care who they are or how famous their name; I don’t care if they work for a big deal publishing company or run a one-person freelance business from their living room. Ripping apart an author’s work is editorial incompetence of the worst, most hostile kind.

Now, it does occasionally happen that an editor thinks their commentary is neutrally and diplomatically stated whereas the author would beg to differ. Sometimes the author really is unprepared to hear anything other than a rave, but in my experience, it is the editor who often misjudges tone, not the author who is being overly sensitive.

I’ve seen editors mock authors’ characters, make fun of plot holes, criticize the author for being racist or sexist when it is a character displaying those traits (which may still be something for the editor to discuss with the author but character =/= author), and ask hostile questions (“Why on earth would Brad act that way?”)

Here are my suggestions for editors who don’t want to be accused of ripping apart an author’s work:

1. Don’t use humor in your edit even if you’re sure the author will find it as hilarious as you do. The only thing editors should poke fun at is themselves.

2. Review all commentary (editorial queries, revision letter, etc.) after stepping away from the edit for a day or two. You’ll see with fresh eyes and can pick up on phrasing that could be read the wrong way.

3. Be sure you actually like working with authors and respect what they’re doing, even the least talented among them.

4. Check with your colleagues. They can help you see where your tone may be edging into mean-spirited territory.

5. Reduce your use of questions in the queries. Questions are inherently hostile (you’re expecting the author to defend their decisions). Instead, state what you think the problem is and explain why you think it’s a problem (that is, defend your decisions). “Why is Marty such a jerk?” is hostile. “Marty comes across as a jerk here” is more neutral. “I don’t think having Marty pull such a mean-spirited prank is congruent with his generally kind-hearted character. I recommend . . . [whatever it is that will fix the problem]” is even better.

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