(Mis)Adventures in Publishing

Confessions and Random Observations

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9 Tips for Giving Better Editorial Feedback

These tips are not ideas or techniques I created but just what I have observed working with others in the field. I have been arranging editorial reviews for over a decade, so I have seen firsthand the feedback that authors and editors cherish and find useful. Remember, an editor is ultimately only as good as the percentage of his or her suggestions an author adopts.

Here are just nine tips for giving solid editorial feedback:

1. Start nicely. The process seems almost formulaic — you start with compliments and what you like about the work, and the author is obviously just reading through your comments and waiting for the “but” or the inevitable other shoe to drop, right? Possibly, but starting with supportive and encouraging statements works because it lets the author know from the start that you see the value in the work and that your intention is to help bring that value out further.

2. Know that how you say it is as important as what you say. Given that the best feedback is only as good as its manner of delivery, you’re not doing anyone a favor by being harsh and ripping a work to shreds. You’ll just isolate authors to the point that they stop listening. You may raise some incredible points in your feedback, but if those points are delivered in a harsh manner, they will never be seen or responded to. A callous approach is a total waste of time.

3. Tear it down, but build it up, too. When pointing out what does not work, always say what will work. Anyone can look at a written piece and remark on the flaws and shortcomings. Real feedback includes offering other avenues or options when encountering problematic areas in the spirit of resolution. Criticism without offering suggestions for improvement is just whining.

4. Don’t skimp on the details. Cite examples and give details of both the good and the bad in a work. Making general statements like “There are points when the author just goes off on tangents” is not helpful. And though a lot nicer to hear, compliments like “There are points when the author really inspires me!” also offer little help. Consistently provide specific examples of where something works or doesn’t work — chapter and verse — because the author can’t read your mind.

5. Promote from within. When you are trying to explain how to make a particular section or argument in a work flow better, use parts of the manuscript that work well as examples of what the author can do to improve the parts that don’t work as well. This type of feedback is the best because it reassures the author that he or she already knows how to fix the problem — and the criticism is a lot less intimidating when delivered in this praising manner.

6. Become invisible. The temptation exists to start offering feedback from the “If I were writing this book” point of view, but it’s not your book. I am always amazed by the number of seasoned editors who still lapse into this mind set. Your goal in giving feedback is to help authors write the best book they can, and all of your energy should go to that end, not to furthering your own agenda or thoughts. And if the author takes all your suggestions but then takes ownership for the ideas? That is the ultimate success.

7. Be an expert. Don’t be afraid to say what other authors in the same field have said about the same issues your author contends with. How did others overcome similar obstacles, what are their ideas, and how can we apply those techniques here? When you use others’ works in your feedback to an author, you strengthen your own argument by giving authoritative supporting evidence.

8. Avoid the laundry list. I’ve seen some feedback presented as laundry lists, where chunks of suggestions or points are offered on different issues, one after the other, on a lengthy bulleted or numbered list. What author wants to see a list numbered 1 to 56 of all the partsthat need addressing? Divide all concerns into three or four larger subjects (almost all issues will fit under the categories of structure, language, or argument) and then group the feedback under each heading accordingly.

9. Introduce yourself. So much of the feedback we offer stems from our own cultural and educational backgrounds, yet we forget how the authors we provide feedback to remain unaware of these details. Knowing your background, professional and personal, as well as your qualifications and areas of interest gives authors context for your feedback and helps them understand why you took a certain stand. It never hurts to write an introductory paragraph to relay this background information.

There are plenty more techniques, but this list is a start.

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    Good guidelines for yr first creative writing class. All except maybe no.7, which I can only hear in my head as “Well,...
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