“What an idiot! She didn’t understand this at all!”
“That moron! What does he mean that subplot was an unnecessary diversion?!”
“What is she thinking? I can’t possibly cut Chapter 6! That chapter is essential!”
“How can he possibly think that character isn’t sympathetic? She’s totally sympathetic!”
Such are among the common reactions to editorial feedback.
I know. Because I’ve been on the receiving end. And on the giving end.
I’ve read, edited, and critiqued hundreds of manuscripts. I’ve also reviewed scores of books for the likes of Chicago Book Review, Chicago Life, Midwest Book Review, and San Francisco Book Review. I’ve doled out feedback on tens of thousands of words of text for nonfiction and fiction alike.
As a writer myself, I know that it’s almost never any fun to be the recipient of a manuscript full of tracked changes (or, in the olden days, littered with red pen) or to receive a 3,500-word manuscript critique full of feedback about everything that’s not working or to get back from an editor an article that’s barely recognizable.
It’s not fun, but it is useful. And instructive. And for writers who want to publish their best work and who want to continue to improve their skills, it’s necessary. And so, with that, it’s important to learn how to handle edits and critiques. As I tell the writers I work with, accepting feedback takes some doing. And some guts. And some time. And patience.
Here are seven steps to take when getting edits or feedback, whether from your editor, book doctor, writing instructor, or writer’s group pals.
1. Take It Easy!
The first thing I tell my authors is to review the critique and the annotated manuscript and take a few days to let it all sink in before trying to tackle a rewrite. It’s difficult not to feel defensive or misunderstood when first reading a critique, and so taking a little time to reflect can be helpful. Unless you’re on a tight deadline and a quick rewrite is imperative, it’s important to process the edits or critique. Give yourself some time to be angry or sad or frustrated to insulted. These negative feelings are typical and normal, so let yourself feel them. Go ahead and cry or scream. Vent to someone who will understand. But don’t keep reading the critique, the analysis, or the feedback over and over again right away. There’s no need to torture yourself. Review the written overview; take a look at all the edits, comments, and queries posed in the manuscript; and then walk away. Give yourself time to process the feedback. This might take a few days or even a few weeks.
2. Remember That It All Comes From a Place of Love
I don’t know of any editors who are sadists when it comes to editing or critiquing a manuscript. Few of us derive any pleasure from ripping a writer to shreds. I doubt any of us set out to destroy the self-confidence of a would-be author who has just poured her heart and soul into her manuscript. So remember that all the edits, comments, and questions that come back to you are designed to help you improve the manuscript—and to improve as a writer. Your editor isn’t telling you that you have too many subplots because she wants to hurt your feelings. Your editor isn’t advising you to rearrange your chapters just for fun. Your editor has shared her feedback with you because she hopes that doing so will help you make changes to the manuscript that will make it even better.
3. Tackle the Easy Stuff First
After you’ve taken some time away from the feedback and the edited manuscript you’ve gotten back from your editor, revisit it with an open mind. Look through the comments to see if any patterns emerge. Is your editor constantly suggesting that more detail is needed? Is she consistently revising “it’s” to “its” or “they’re” to “their” or fixing some other error that continually pops up throughout the manuscript? Things like this can be easy to correct—and getting through those easy edits can make you feel a little bit better about the amount of work before you. Fix what you can easily fix before moving on to the tough stuff.
4. Read It Again
After you’ve fixed the easy stuff, read your entire manuscript again—but do it in “Final” rather than “Final Showing Markup” in the Review panel. After you’ve read the manuscript, take another look at the written critique. Did your editor get it right? What feedback do you agree with (however reluctantly)? Take a look at the manuscript comments.
Here’s a Word trick: in the Review panel, click on “Final” rather than “Final Showing Markup” so that you’re looking at a clean, clear manuscript. Go to the top of the manuscript, put your cursor at the title, and click “Insert Comment.” This will move you to a view of the manuscript that shows all the comments but none of the edits or tracked changes. Here you can look at all the queries and comments your editor has posed without having to see all the mark-ups, which can be distracting. Read through those comments. Which make sense? Which might prompt some rewriting, additions, or deletions?
Then, read it all again: the manuscript, the written critique, and the inserted comments. Look for patterns in the feedback. Think about how what your editor read compares to what you think you wrote. You need not tackle all these points at once. The key here is to read it all, absorb the feedback, and think about what your next step should be.
5. Take It Apart Before Putting It Back Together
Once you’ve tackled the easy edits and quick fixes and read through and processed all the feedback, queries, and comments, it’s time to plan how you will attack your rewrites. There is no one way to do this. Every writer will find a method that works best for him or her. Some writers might find it helpful to use different colors to highlight passages that require work, say green for material that’s good as is, yellow for passages that need some rewriting, red for sections that could be cut, and blue for bits that you’re not quite sure about. Some writers have been known to print out the entire manuscript, cut it into pieces at each paragraph break, and rearrange it bit by bit. Some writers might find it useful to group the comments and queries into themes, number them by priority, and attack the manuscript in stages. Some prefer to go at it from beginning to end, accepting or deleting edits line by line and addressing queries and comments in order. The trick is to not fear the process. Don’t be afraid of dismantling your manuscript in order to put it back together.
6. Accept or Reject—But Don’t Ignore What You Don’t Agree With
I tell the writers I work with that it’s their choice whether they accept or reject my edits. It’s also their choice as to whether they address or ignore the queries and comments I pose throughout the manuscript. And that’s true. It’s not my manuscript. It’s your manuscript. To do with what you will. But keep in mind that you’ve hired—and paid for—a professional editor to provide feedback and constructive criticism for you. So, do what you will with your manuscript, but don’t reject or ignore edits, comments, or queries that you don’t agree with, that you don’t like, or that make you angry. Instead, leave them for now. Set them aside. Accept the edits you agree with and address the comments and queries that sit well with you. But don’t reject edits you don’t like. Just leave them for now. Rewrite around them. Don’t delete the comments that tick you off. Leave them. Rewrite around those, too. And then, once you’ve tackled everything you agree with and accept, reread your manuscript, again in “Final” rather than “Final Showing Markup.” Then go back and look at the edits, comments, and queries that didn’t sit well with you for whatever reason. Think about whether your editor actually did get it right. If you don’t understand what your editor was getting at, don’t be afraid to ask. If, after discussing with your editor, you still disagree, then, well, go ahead and reject, reject, reject. It’s your manuscript.
7. Let It Be Before Calling It Done
Once you’ve tackled all the edits—minor and major—and done all your rewriting, it’s important to set your manuscript aside. Depending on how long it is and what kind of deadline you’re working on, this might mean setting it aside for a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. What’s important here is to give yourself some distance. Once you’ve spent some time away from your manuscript, it’s time to read it and polish it. Did you fix all the edits? Did you address all the comments and queries? Do you feel like it’s done? Some writers could tinker into perpetuity. Some know when they’re finished. Only you can decide when your manuscript is ready (although if you’re under contract and on a deadline, your publisher might be telling you that, come on, already! It’s done!). Call it done once you feel confident that you’ve done everything you could to make it the best it can be.
Accepting criticism of any kind can be challenging at best. When it comes to handling criticism from your editor, it’s important to take time—to let it all sink in, to assess the feedback, to tackle the rewrites, and to call it done. It’s also to remember that it’s your manuscript—and to remember that your editor, like you, wants it to be the best it can be.
“No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.”
—J. Russell Lynes
May 9, 2016