Editing seminar snapshots: negative criticism and author control

image_00006smlThis week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. So far I’ve covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team and how authors need to allow enough time to use their feedback properly. Today, it’s how to cope with criticism.


Editing – an ordeal or not?

Henry Hyde (who took the pic of me!) asked the very good question of how writers respond when they receive a report. He’s the editor of a magazine, and said that contributors are often aghast when their work is red-penned. So what the blazes does a writer make of a 40-page document of major changes (as I described in my previous post)?

Well, I try to be gentle. I also encourage the author to see the report as criticism of the work, not them – although it’s often hard for them to see that. The more writing you do in a professional environment, the thicker your soles become and the more you’re able to see a manuscript as a work for others to help you with, rather than a bundle of your most tender nerve-endings.

It helps to have sensitive criticism, though. In traditional publishing, I’ve had savage editors who seemed to relish their chance to tear an author down – and generous souls who make it clear they are working for a book they already believe in. I hope I’ve learned from them how to be the latter.

The author has control

One author brought up an interesting point about a copy editor who had rewritten her dialogue, converting it unsuitably from period to a modern voice. With hindsight it was clear that the editor was probably working in an area outside her experience and thought all books should be edited the same way – a salutary warning to choose your team carefully. And several authors asked: ‘what if the author disagrees with the editor’?

A good question. It is, of course, entirely up to you what you do with a proof-reader’s tweaks or an editor’s recommendations. You are in control. Burn the report if you like, we’ll never know – but we’d prefer to think we’d been useful. I’m careful to make suggestions rather than must-dos, and to encourage an author to explore what they’re aiming for.

A good editor will also try to ensure they’re in tune with the author before any precious words change hands (let alone precious $$$). (Here’s my post on how a good editor helps you be yourself.  I’m not tooting my own trumpet here – for most of you who are reading this, it’s likely I won’t be the right editor. Be highly wary of anyone who says they can developmentally edit absolutely anything.)

Let me reiterate: it’s your book. YOUR book. The editor, copy editor and proof reader make suggestions, not commands. (The same applies in a traditional publishing contract, provided you haven’t assigned moral rights – which isn’t usual.)
Use this power wisely. (And, to return to Messrs Jon Fine and Joe Konrath , don’t publish shit.)

Thanks Toni Holopainen for the pic of the man undergoing a thorough edit
Next (and finally): self-editing to self-censorship
If you’ve worked with editors, how did you feel about their criticisms? If you’ve been through this process several times, have you toughened up? Have you disagreed with an editor’s suggestions, and what came of it? Have you ever paid for an editorial service and concluded it was a waste of time and money? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by johnnycrowman on December 5, 2014 - 10:30 am

    Cope with criticism by inspecting the bud before the need to nip it arises.
    In most professions, there exists a spectrum of skill-level, ranging from crap (20%) to good (70%) to frigging amazing (10%).

    Crap editors (either shysters or ignorant wannabes) will screw your work up with their daft ideas, possibly make you cry, and even put you off ever writing again.

    Good editors will get the job done (most of the time) and maybe ruffle some feathers along the way. You might even fall out (or fall into, an unseen plot hole).

    Frigging amazing editors will make you dizzy with excitement when their edits ping your inbox.
    A frigging amazing editor will be aware that each and every writer spills his soul, spreads it through the story elements, the characterisation, word choices, and that this creates the author’s unique voice/style. Said frigging amazing editor will also be acutely aware of each genre’s conventions, as well as understanding the importance of story conflict control and the need to use it to manipulate reader, therefore getting the best out of the story. This shiny editor will also be highly-tuned to the often elusive objective viewpoint. Find such an editor and you will also find a magnificent teacher, one who nurtures with compassion, passion and humility in equal measure.

    And my point is: whether buying a fitted kitchen, a package holiday, or hiring an editor, the standard percentages apply: crap (20%) to good (70%) to frigging amazing (10%), so, do your research, look for reviews, choose wisely. Do that and you won’t have to cope with criticism, your frigging amazing editor will do it for you.

    • #2 by philipparees on December 5, 2014 - 12:53 pm

      Great comment Johnnycrowman. Now for the list of the 10%…?

      • #3 by johnnycrowman on December 5, 2014 - 1:01 pm

        Good point, Philippa. Sadly no such list yet exists – all the frigging amazing editors are too humble to put their hands up, and all those writers who found gold don’t like to share.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 5, 2014 - 9:14 pm

      Amen. Arrrrrrrmennnnnnnn!

  2. #5 by johnnycrowman on December 5, 2014 - 10:31 am

    Reblogged this on On Writing & Editing and commented:
    Editing – how to cope with criticism…

  3. #6 by belledelettres on December 5, 2014 - 12:39 pm

    Interesting and helpful article. I have been through the creative writing PhD system where I experienced three different creative supervisors throughout four years. Their approaches and specialisms were all completely different. Time will tell if my novel is successful but it was certainly an interesting exercise in flexibility!

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 5, 2014 - 9:16 pm

      Welcome, Belle! What a limbering experience that must have been – three different approaches to improving your work. You’ll probably feel the benefit most in years to come, after you play on your own with your book and start figuring out what helps you and what doesn’t. But congratulations on your commitment to go as far as the PhD.

  4. #8 by writeanne on December 5, 2014 - 3:16 pm

    He’s too modest so I’ll say it, johnnycrowman is an F.A.E. -(frigging amazing editor). That having been said, he, like any good editor tells it like it is. A good editor will offer constructive criticism – it’s what you, the author, are paying for. If you really disagree with your editor’s comments then sleep on it – you’ll probably find that by the morning you agree. If you do find you have major and repeated and disagreements with an editor, if, as johnnycrowman says, you’re heart doesn’t sing when your editor’s feedback pings in your inbox – then you’re not right for each other and you should find someone new.

    A school inspector once told me that when he gave constructive feedback to teachers, it always surprised him that even if he did the professional critique equivalent of saying ‘you look fabulous, your jewellery is exquisite, that tailoring is superb, but the tie doesn’t do the rest of the ensemble justice’ – all the teacher remembered and took to heart was the tie remark – something easily remedied on an otherwise excellent set of clothes.

    Most of us writers probably react like those teachers when getting our editor’s feedback. We need to pat ourselves on the back for what’s working in our writing and then set about finding a better tie.

    • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 5, 2014 - 9:18 pm

      HI Anne – from what I’ve heard of Mr Hudspith’s reputation, I figured you might give him the FAE vote.

      And good example with the tie. I often refer to a post I wrote titled ‘why your editor admires you – and why you may not realise’. This point comes up a lot when I give talks about editing.

      • #10 by writeanne on December 6, 2014 - 10:57 am

        I have many discarded and shredded ties 🙂

  5. #11 by DRMarvello on December 6, 2014 - 2:40 pm

    When I evaluate feedback of any kind, from any source of criticism, I ask myself three questions…

    1) Do I agree? If I don’t agree with the criticism, I move on and don’t waste time agonizing over it.

    2) What is the real issue? Critics often react to something that went awry earlier in the story. The point where feedback is given is sometimes a symptom rather than the problem.

    3) How shall *I* fix it? Critics (particularly other authors) often make suggestions on how something should be corrected. I rarely accept such suggestions. No one else has my understanding of the story or my perspective on what I’m trying to achieve with it, so their suggestions are rarely appropriate. Instead, I ruminate on the core issue they have pointed out and come up with my own solution.

    These questions take a lot of the emotional angst out of the feedback review process, partly because I always feel in control. That first question is key. The others let me move forward without feeling like I’m writing someone else’s story.

  1. Editing seminar snapshots: writing for a blog vs writing for a book | Nail Your Novel

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