One of the most challenging aspects of receiving feedback on a manuscript is that editors often jump straight to offering you ideas and solutions that don’t resonate. You want to be receptive to feedback, you want to keep an open mind, but you if you listen to these ideas you can get confused in a hurry.
That’s why I’ve developed a cardinal rule as both a book editor and as an author: identify problems first, then move to solutions.
There are several of reasons why I advocate starting with the problems first:
- Authors, not editors, are best-equipped to come up with the right solutions. The author knows the book better than the editor. It’s extremely rare when an editor can offer a solution that’s better than the one an author thinks of. When editors stick to the realms of problems they leave the author free to be the fixers.
- Starting with a discussion of problems helps you get to a deeper level. Sometimes there’s a surface problem that’s actually a symptom of a deeper problem with the manuscript. For instance, there might be a stretch in the novel that feels boring, but the real problem is that the main character isn’t active enough or the narrative voice isn’t working. If all you and your editor are talking about is how to fix the boring stretch you might not end up identifying the real problem and the deeper issue will go unaddressed.
- A list of problems can help you identify common threads. If you stare at a list of problems you can see how different trouble spots tie together, which is another way of getting deeper and identifying those more fundamental issues.
What to do when your editor only offers solutions
You might have some well-intentioned beta readers who think it’s their job to help you fix the book, which may result in a bunch of ideas ranging from the useful to the harebrained. I think it’s helpful to steer people in advance toward identifying problems, but sometimes people just can’t help themselves.
So have a conversation with them. Say something along the lines of, “Huh, I see you want me to introduce some space monkeys in this scene, what’s the thing there that you think it would fix?”
Try to see past their solutions to the real underlying problem they’re reacting to. Maybe they had the space monkeys idea because an action sequence wasn’t exciting enough or you need to spice up the setting.
If you take this approach, virtually all feedback becomes useful. Not every reader is going to see all the same problems, but when you reduce the responses to a category of problems even the zaniest feedback becomes helpful. You can discard the strange ideas and come up with your own.
Particularly when you’re in the throes of revision fatigue, it’s tempting to want to get straight to the solutions so you can get things moving.
Resist the temptation. Don’t jump to solutions.
Assemble the feedback, catalogue the problems, try to take them to the deepest level possible, and only then get to work on the solutions.
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Art: Beached Ship by Albert Bierstadt