Authors Confess: How to Survive an Editor’s Critique

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Last weekend I participated in a full-novel critique with five other writers, and we joked afterward about how it’s so helpful and yet it feels like thanking people for “bruising and battering” you, as one of my fellow critiquers put it. It’s just one of the many reasons that writing requires a thick skin.

I’ve often heard my published friends talk about the similar scenario of getting feedback from their editors. And I still remember listening to Stephenie Meyer at a book conference describe how she cried when she got her first single-spaced ten-page critique from her editor listing all the things that were “wrong” with her Twilight manuscript. It’s rough, even when it’s an editor who’s already given you the biggest piece of flattery: loving your ms enough to buy it in the first place.

So I asked some of my author friends this week,

How do you cope with that notoriously tear-inducing editor’s letter?

Jessica Day George, author of the Dragon Slippers trilogy, Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, and Princess of the Midnight Ball:

I rant and rave and tear my hair and scream, How am I supposed to do that? Did she even READ the book? That’s my favorite part! And then I go complain to my husband, and while I’m talking I realize, Oh. That DOES sound better. Yes, I can see why she wants to make that change. I suppose I could try it. . .

It’s the same thing every time, I will never learn!

Bree Despain, author of The Dark Divine:

Whenever I get feedback from my editor/agent I let it sit for a day or two. At first some of his suggestions seem impossible to do, or I just plain don’t agree with them, but I always make sure I mull it over for at least a day before responding. Usually, after thinking about it, what seemed like an impossible idea suddenly feels exactly like the right idea to make the story better. However, if after a few days of pondering, I still feel like the criticism isn’t right, then I discuss it with my editor. 9 times out of 10, after we talk it out, I discover that my editor doesn’t want me to change something in the story, he just wants me to clarify it or make the motivation behind it stronger.

Heather Dixon, artist/novelist, whose first book Entwined debuts winter 2011 with Greenwillow:

Shannon Hale, author of ten novels including Goose Girl, Book of a Thousand Days, and Actor and the Housewife:

I read a writer’s advice early on never to respond to an editor’s letter the day you get it. It’s so easy to get defensive and try to explain, “But what I was trying to do was…” That doesn’t matter. I respond with a quick, “I got your letter! Thanks, it all looks great. I’ll be in touch.” Then I spend a couple of days (weeks) digesting it. It’s invaluable feedback, what a reader who isn’t as frighteningly close to the story as you thinks. I always take her advice very seriously and will revise 2-3 times before sending her a fresh copy to look over again. We go through several editorial rounds before copy editing.

So there you have it!

And sure enough, the same was true with the feedback I got on Saturday (except that it was like having FIVE editors — sheesh!). When I read their written comments that night, all I saw was how much they “hated” my manuscript and how my mad writing skills had failed to win them over. Then, after I’d given it a few days’ worth of thought, I reread the exact same comments and discovered that actually they liked my manuscript and that I’d succeeded at most of what I’d focused on for that draft, and their suggestions had to do with what I should focus on next to, you know, make it even better.

Yep, same critique, but what a difference a few days and a little perspective make!

Any of your own insights to share?

Leave a comment!

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18 responses »

  1. Had to laugh while reading this because I did the same thing. It’s amazing how much nicer the critiques felt after a day or so. Now, I’m so excited to get to work. I woke up this morning with everyone’s ideas swirling in my mind, and thoughts of how to incoporate them into my novel springing up like weeds. I love it when that happens.

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    • Glad to know I wasn’t the only one! Seriously, it was a huge surprise to reread the comments and discover they’d CHANGED! How did that happen? Did you guys magically alter my computer files to make your comments much more positive on Wednesday than they were on Saturday?

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      • Lol…reading over it again, even though it was a goofy comic, I thought I’d just better add that I feel really, really lucky to have the editor I do…her story & editorial skills blow my brains out. Still can’t believe how lucky I am to have her.

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  2. I love this post. I finally learned to deal with constructive critiques/editings of my stories, and now my philosophy is ‘The harsher the better.’

    I didn’t always feel this way. Once I brought an arguementative paper to my mom to proof and she ripped it apart. We had an epic battle of mother/daughter proportions, which naturally my mother won…her arguement being “You should have seen how ripped up drafts of my thesis were”.

    When I finally did read the paper with her suggestions, it was better. Since then I’ve appreciated when people red ink my papers/stories into brutal death.

    In fact, I remember being sorely disappointed in college when taking a creative writing class. Part of the class was to edit everyone else’s stories, which amounted to about 44 edits by the end of the term. I would go over my calassmantes stories with a critical eye and mark them up and down with suggestions.

    Not only did my classmates all hate me and call me a bitch behind my back (jerkfaces) but when I got my stories back, I think I had a single spelling/grammar correction on one of the 30 papers. Nothing else. THAT’S NOT HELPFUL!

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    • I completely agree! I hate it when reviewers give blase feedback. I have to chastise my students about it at the beginning of every semester until they learn the same lesson you describe: that critical feedback is more helpful!

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    • Oh! That’s terrible! I think that happened to me on the last round because I remember feeling really great right after the critique and then by the time I got around to starting on revisions a few days later I’d lost all momentum/positive feelings. Momentum is a funny thing like that. Good luck finding yours again!

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      • Mostly I think it’s because the changes that I realized I needed to make would cut out some of the things I loved. I’m not very good at darling murder sometimes.

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        • Me either. I’m totally not letting go of that selkie part until an editor forces me too. Until then I’m just going to keep trying to make it work.

          One option I’ve discovered, though, is combining. I take my favorite pieces and move them into different scenes to help the pacing. So far I’ve cut 4,000 words since Saturday just by doing that. 🙂

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  3. Heather, I loved the comic strip. Isn’t it the truth though! I do love the book and can’t seem to read it enough! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Pingback: Showing Character « All About the Words

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