As someone who is used to offering editorial advice to authors, both as a literary agent and freelance book editor, when I’m on the receiving end of suggestions as an author, I know that the (brilliant) suggestions my editors make are nothing personal. I know how important it is to take the changes to heart and try my absolute best to make the manuscript better.
Easier said than done.
Having gone through the editing process on both sides, here are some suggestions for handling critiques.
Read the editorial letter and put it away
When you get your editorial letter/critique, steel your resolve, read it once, put it away, and don’t think about it or act on it for at least a couple of days.
An editorial letter is kind of like a radioactive substance that you need to become gradually acclimated to over the course of several days. It needs to be absorbed in small doses and kept at arm’s length and quarantined when necessary until you are able to overcome the dangerous side effects: anger, paranoia, excessive pride, delusions of grandeur, and/or homicidal tendencies. Should you find yourself experiencing any of these side effects, consult your writing support group immediately for an antidote.
It’s hard to have your work critiqued, and it’s tempting to take it personally. Just know that it’s a normal reaction and in a couple of days you’ll feel better. Once you’ve calmed down and are able to consider the changes without your heart racing: that’s when you know you’re ready to get working.
Go with your gut
You don’t have to take every single suggestion, and I’m often very glad when my clients don’t listen to all of my suggestions and take only the best ones. If you don’t agree with a change, big or small, it’s okay to stick to your guns if you have a really good reason for it.
Only: make sure it’s really your gut talking and not your lazy bone. Or your bull head.
And on that note…
Don’t simply ignore the suggestions you don’t agree with
Often when someone makes a specific suggestion for a change to a certain scene or plot line you won’t always agree with it and you’ll throw up your hands and say there’s no way you’re going to make the change.
But! Even if you don’t agree with the specific remedy the editor suggested, something prompted them to suggest the change, and that something could be an underlying problem that needs to be addressed, even if you don’t agree with the one the editor proposed.
For instance, you may not willing to get rid of the homicidal bald eagle in your novel, even if your editor or critique partner suggests it. But surely there’s something you can change to alleviate their concerns. For instance, the homicidal bald eagle may need to have a conscience.
Confronting a revision can be extremely daunting because of the Cascade Effect: when you change one plot point it necessitates two more changes so that the plot still makes sense after the change, which prompts still more changes and more and more. Ten or more changes can cascade from a single change, even a minor one.
In order to avoid Cascade Effect Terror, I find that it’s helpful to work on only one change at time. Make the change, and then trace it through the book making all the necessary subsequent changes so that everything makes sense.
I like to color code my editorial letters and then prioritize the changes from biggest to smallest.
This way, instead of having to keep every single editorial suggestion in your head as you’re moving your way sequentially through the manuscript you can be targeted and efficient with your revisions.
If you find yourself getting mad it’s probably because your editor/critique partner is right
Great suggestions are easy to accept: you usually smack your head and think, “Why didn’t I think of that??”
Bad suggestions are easy to reject: you just think, “Naw, I’m not doing that.”
I’ve found that when the suggestions make me mad, it’s usually because the editor is right. My brain is just having trouble admitting it.
Listen, listen, listen
Easy to say. Tougher in practice.
Do you have any suggestions for how best to incorporate feedback?
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Art: Portrait of William Hamilton and John Maitland by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen
I'm guessing it's more case by case, based around what they think a particular book needs. But I say that without much experience of big publishers. My editing background is mostly freelance (where people pay me specifically for that deep cut) or as a lit mag editor, where there's lots of vetting (selection) and copyediting but only a little deep editing.
Anyway, that's my guess, that it's more about the specific thoughts of the editor on a particular book (though editors are human and if a low priority book needed some editing when they were swamped with other stuff…)
First off, I've had both a non-editing agent and an editing agent, and I much prefer the agent who's willing to put on the editing hat from time to time. It helps that she's good at it, and is open to conversing about matters when I don't agree.
Next, about Faulkner's quote…can you imagine how a local or even online writer's group would tear apart his or Vonnegut's work if submitted by an unpublished writer? I agree that you need a bit of arrogance and commitment to your vision when writing breakthrough fiction like theirs, but for us genre writers, our goal is to entertain, write characters readers can care about, and (hopefully) throw in a few lines of brilliance every now and then. Input and editing can only enhance that.
Finally, I suggest writing an email in Word or save it in Drafts when upset about feedback from someone who can impact your career. DO NOT SEND IT. EVER. The letter is for you to vent and sort things out.
This is getting to be an interesting conversation, is it not?
Gordon, I appreciate the elaboration on certain points. My feeling is that no matter how great you are, no matter how firm you have to be in defense of your work, it's possible to be polite and considerate of the people on the other end. Sure, you have to make considered judgments, and trust your own instincts in the end. As you pointed out, there's a risk of losing there. That risk is massively reduced if you're nice to the people you're dealing with.
I don't believe that it's possible to separate arrogance about your writing work from arrogance in your personal life. One will inevitably spill over into the other. I agree that you need a lot of faith in yourself and what you are doing, yes. Faith and confidence and endless determination. Arrogance, on the other hand, will slowly but surely strangle your connection to the human race, and in the end, be the death of any good you might otherwise do.
I'm looking forward to having an agent read my work and offer suggestions. I expect to value what this second pair of eyes can point out. I also expect that I'll be willing to make certain changes, while standing firm on others. To me, that won't be arrogance, or ruthlessness, but a matter of principle. There are some things that matter to the integrity of the story (and even to my integrity as a writer), but not all.
My operating rule is: proceed with confidence and consideration, and pick your battles wisely. 🙂
Um, I don't even want to know….
Ian Wood says
My equivalent to #5 is "Always pay special attention to critiques that you immediately reject." I find that defensive speediness is almost as reliable as anger.
Leigh Lyons says
Every critique comment I get, usually sends me into the 5 Stages of Grief:
Denial: "What? Of course electric blue unicorns who spit fire are still 'in'! The person has no idea what (s)he is talking about."
Anger: "the %*@^#^% wouldn't know a blue unicorn if it bit him/her on the @$$!"
Bargaining: "Getting this critique doesn't mean I'm a bad writer right?"
Depression: "I love my blue unicorn and it makes me the worst writer in the world for liking, nay, loving them!"
Acceptance: "Yeah. That unicorn really has no place there."
I have found that I go through these quicker when I can bounce the big 5 off a friend.
(If you're still reading this thread.) Maybe we mean something a little different by a "great" writer. I'm talking about people who come along maybe just a handful per century. Somebody like Mark Twain, for instance. Not sure if we even have any living right now.
Could you imagine Sam Clemens rewriting to editorial order?
It seems like you're misconstruing the editorial process. We're not talking "writing to editorial order", but a writer receiving feedback and applying it where they deem appropriate. And, yes, certainly I think Mr. Clemens/Twain would consider feedback. Being aware of how people receive your writing (and using that knowledge to make your work better) is simply part of the job. I think the idea of the "untouched" genius who has never had help from another person is a romantic fallacy.
Unbounded genius and talent is great, but success requires a huge amount of work, and a large part of that work is the continuous act of grappling with weaknesses and flaws in an attempt to improve a sentence, a paragraph, a story. No one is just hatched into a writerly version of perfect grace. Feedback is part of the journey.
Nathan Bransford says
The great writers listen to feedback and make their work better. No one is such a genius that they can't improve their work with good editing.
Great post & great timing, Nathan, as I am expecting my first ed letter any time now. Thanks!
I can't believe I'm arguing for arrogance…I'm not, really!! I do agree with the person who said arrogance disconnects us from others and is counterproductive, but there are breakthrough writers who are trying something different and will not be understood by publish-hungry critique partners and some publishing professionals to begin with.
What if Stephen King was told not to make us care a about a character and then kill him/her off? That might be sound advice for beginning horror genre writers, but I'm glad he broke that rule and endured rejection after rejection until he found someone who got it.
And Jodi Picoult, what if people told her she can't have characters we care about who do unlikeable things? She, also, broke the rules and endured more than her share of rejections before she got published.
I wrote two edgier YA books that got nibbles from agents, but no takers. Then I wrote a more innocent one and got a lot more nibbles and an agent. So, at some level I sold out to fit into my genre better, but now my agent is trying to sell my edgier books too, so it turned out for the best.
For those trying to buck the system, especially at the critique partner level and with potential agents who want revisions before signing, you need to decide if going against the grain is worth it sometimes even though it's a harder row to hoe…and maybe that takes a more stubborn belief in your vision and talent, if not arrogance.
Seren Wade says
No 5 – is the most applicable to me … you just have to simply take a number of deep breaths and calm down – my agent always seems to be correct, when I stop and really think about what has been said, but I rarely think that to start with!
A wonderful piece – with brilliant advice …. thank you!
marthz Ramirez says
Great post, Nathan! I joined a crit group in Oct. Wish I read this when I first joined. It was overwhelming at first, depending on which crits were given. You are so right about taking a couple days and then going back to it. That is what I did and it sure helped.
Hope you had a great holiday! So thankful for your blog:)
Being receptive to criticism does not mean taking every bit of advice. It means evaluating the advice and using whatever will help improve your story (by whatever standards you, the writer, choose to apply).
If someone told Stephen King something stupid it's his job as a writer not to take the stupid advice. (I'm sure he gets a ton – I bet reading his fan mail is an interesting experience) But that doesn't mean he's never taken advice, critique, editorial suggestions, etc. His wife, if I recall, is always his first reader and critter. And I'm sure he has an agent and editor.
It's not, I think, a matter of arrogance (and ignoring any opinion but your own) but rather a confidence in your vision that allows you to discern what will be useful and what won't.
Yep, that's what I meant. Thank you, Ink!
Demon Hunter says
It's difficult to hear from a critique partner, especially mine.
My CP was an editor for a small publisher, so on my last WIP when she told me that I had "moustache twirling" dialogue from my villian, I nearly fainted. LOL. 😀 But when I read the dialogue aloud, it did have that, "Aha, I've got you now" feel to it. LOL. So, she was right and my dialogue on my current WIP is WAAAAY better. 😀
When a change is suggested that I don't agree with, it's often because I haven't made some underlying cause/effect/condition clear earlier. So if I find myself explaining at length (even if it's only in my head) why that change is impossible, usually those explanations haven't been made in the manuscript. So I have to go back and make sure the framework supports the whole – again!
Charlene Ann Baumbich says
Thank you for such an honest, relatable and important post. It's good to remember that the editor and the writer are on the same team with the same purpose: make the book its best. You did an excellent job pointing that out.
You know, your look at this is critical for both seasoned and beginning writers, but especially for beginners who don't understand that *all work needs editing.
One thing I usually do differently than you suggested, especially with fiction, is #4: tackling one editing change at a time. I do tackle them all at once. I'm not saying my way is better. Neva-neva! It's just that my *process works best when I tackle all at once. Let me tell you why.
If I went through the whole ms. and changed one element, I'd ultimately waste lots of time rewriting rewrites. During *my rewrite process, convos and other character's motives/actions might change the course of the original string of corrections, so tackling together creates the best corrective synergy in *my brain.
Does it cause extra checking? Yes. But it saves multiple rounds of editing the edits. However, I am a "pantser," so file that where you will. 🙂
Again, excellent post. Just excellent.
I'm sure you've seen The Intern's recent reaction to her own editorial letter? Very interesting.
G. Jackson says
i guess it boils down to:
trust. trust that the professional you've received feedback from is good at his or her job (which, hopefully, is why you picked him or her) and knows how to bring your work to market.
gut. go with your gut if you know a suggestion is changing the integrity of the work, but try to get to the root of the suggestion rather than dismiss it. there might be an underlying thread that is important.
great post, nathan. thanks.
Andrea Franco-Cook says
I learned about this blog through "Anita's Edge." BTW, I enjoyed reading your post. Anywho, it's funny how things work out.
Yesterday, I posted a draft of the prologue to my novel on my blogsite. I hoped that my "five followers" would give me some insightful and thoughtful feedback.
The first response I received was indeed helpful, but vague. When I read it to my husband, he echoed your sentiments, "Listen to your gut." Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something. Maybe I need to quit second guessing myself and just stick to the writing. I'll worry about the rest later.
Best wishes on your novel.
This is sheer genius. It should be essential reading. I'm about to go through a line edit of book 2, but before I do I'm blogging about this post and how important it is for any writer who's lucky enough to be read by professionals. It's surprising just how painful it is and you make it much easier to manage.
Editing services says
Good material, thank you.
C. S. Lakin says
Critiques can be really painful. For those writers considering getting a professional critique before submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher (which often is a great idea), this is a great post: