Providing Feedback for Authors: How Editors Can Do It Right

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2021-11-02

As humans, we know that receiving critiques and feedback isn’t always easy to do. No one likes to be told that something you did (or are doing) is wrong, especially when the “thing” you’ve been working on is a manuscript that you’ve poured your heart into for months or years.


As editors, though, we know that constructive criticism is absolutely necessary in the editing process! However, that doesn’t mean ruthlessly cutting an author’s manuscript to shreds. The key is to be “constructive”—and, as we’ve discussed before, using empathy to deliver feedback that may be hard to hear is as important. Along with those tips, here are a few more we’d like to share with you, so read on!



Offer Positive Feedback Too!


Recognizing an author’s strengths, or strong points in a manuscript, is one of the best things to do to create a good working relationship. Many authors struggle with entrusting their manuscript to an editor, especially new authors, and (as mentioned) receiving negative feedback can be difficult.


Offering positive feedback not only helps soften the blow of perhaps some of the more critical points you have to make, but it also does two other useful things: it provides fuel and motivation for the author to approach the revisions, and it tells them what they’re doing well and what they should continue doing. Try to include a positive comment/compliment every few pages if you can.


Here are a few ways you can do this:


  • * Point out a successful detail or concept (did they explain something really well?)
  • * Make note of a great sentence and what makes it great
  • * Compliment the flow of the manuscript (whether it’s from idea to idea, chapter to chapter, etc.)
  • * Comment on things that you like


When I’m working through a manuscript, if a sentence makes me laugh, I tell the author! Or, in fiction work, if a plot point is especially well done, I add a comment complimenting it. It doesn’t usually take much to pepper these comments in along with the constructive criticism, but it does make a world of difference.



Provide Suggestions for Fixes


If you had to learn how to play the trumpet, which would be more useful for you: someone describing how to play the trumpet (or just telling you what you’re doing wrong as you muddle through), or someone explaining how to play the trumpet AND showing you how as well?


One piece of advice I got from a past Editors Canada webinar was to ask authors to “show, not tell.” In an authorial context, it means to use language to illustrate things, instead of just telling the audience. For example, the difference between “She looked angry” (telling) and something like “Her eyes were fiery as she glared at him” (showing).


Editors can apply this advice too, albeit in a slightly different way. If you come across a weakness in a manuscript, try to offer some sort of suggestion for how an author might correct the issue. Can they restructure a sentence for more impact? Or rephrase a point to clarify or explain a detail more eloquently?


If you provide an example and explain why the change you made works better, then it helps authors see how they can make those changes elsewhere in the manuscript.


However, just make sure you don’t cross over into the territory of doing the work for the author. Remember: teach them, don’t do it for them (i.e., don’t just rewrite the text!).



Be Specific


This point is pretty simple: Feedback (both positive and negative) that lacks specificity is not helpful for authors, no matter how much of it you provide.


Specific feedback means authors can act upon your suggestions. Don’t say “This section needs work”—instead, say “The flow from this idea to the next one is a bit clunky; how can we better connect these two concepts to make the transition smoother?”



Suggestion, Not Prescription


Ultimately, the book is the author’s work, and so it is important to pay attention to their thought processes and what they need. Feedback should be a conversation between the author and the editor, and if you don’t take the time to listen to what the author has to say, you risk ruining the working relationship.


As an editor, you’re there to help the author be the best writer they can be, and to help them tell the story they want to tell. So, your feedback should be suggestions, not prescriptions.


Make sure that in the editing conversation, you’re listening and trying to understand how to best help this particular author, not with the intent of being “right.”



Be Considerate


This last tip is pretty simple: just be kind. Put yourself in the author’s shoes and make sure your comments are phrased in a considerate way. Being kind will go a long way in creating a great author–editor relationship, and it doesn’t take any extra time to do.


Negative feedback can always be phrased in a way that doesn’t tear the author down or insult them, so make sure you’re paying attention to how you’re speaking to the author in your comments. A lot can get lost when you’re not talking to someone face to face, so it’s important to ensure nothing is lost in translation.


If you put these tips to good use, I think you’ll find that you’ll avoid many potential issues that can crop up when working with authors! Keep the above rules in mind, and go forth and edit!



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