How to Respond to Criticism Like a Pro: A Beginner’s Guide to Working With an Editor

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Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good

— Dr. Samuel Johnson

At a certain stage of your literary development, you look for serious critiques of your work. You don’t stuff your recycling bin with unfinished drafts anymore. Now, if you start an article, a story, a blog post, or even a novel, you finish it. The relationship between form, style, and content is clearer to you; your work has a sense of direction; and you see the quality of your writing improve.

An idea of your strengths andweaknesses forms and you trust yourself more, write more, and submit finished work to magazines, blogs, e-zines, agents, and publishers. A glimmer of professional possibility adds a sheen of excitement to your efforts.

You’ve worked hard, learned a lot, and made tangible progress. It’s a good place to be. And a dangerous one.

It’s at this point that many writers come unstuck. It’s one thing to have enough confidence to look for serious editorial criticism. With research and persistence, that’s easy enough to find. But it’s not so easy to accept and respond creatively to that criticism when you get it.

Knowing how to respond to criticism is the factor that separates the chaff from the wheat, the goats from the sheep, the amateur writer from the pro. More writers reach this stage than go beyond it. But if you do, you’ll soon sell your work and build a career as a professional writer.

Criticism is literary surgery

Surgery is often necessary to support optimum health. It’s also frightening, risky, and painful. But if the alternative is chronic illness, disablement, or death, most would agree that the benefits outweigh the discomfort.

Editorial criticism is like surgery. It can be long, complex life-saving surgery or cosmetic. But it has only one aim: to improve your writing, fix the bits that don’t work, and get your manuscript into first-class condition before publication.

An editor’s first job is to examine the manuscript and make a diagnosis. The next is to suggest interventions to improve the work. The last step is to support you in reworking your manuscript until you’re both happy that you’ve produced the best possible iteration of your story.

Pro writers love their editors

A good editor is often the difference between commercial success and failure. But when your work gets to the editorial stage, you’re no longer working on it alone. You’re a collaborator in a team. If the work is a novel, the team may include your agent, one or more editors and sub-editors, and even the design and marketing department. If it’s a short story submitted to a magazine or e-zine, you may work with a single editor or it may go to print ‘as-is’ after a proofread.

But pro writers recognize how important and helpful it is to let the team do their work. When you worked alone on the manuscript, your job was to elaborate, now your work is in the publishing funnel your job is to collaborate. No successful book is ever written by only one person. So, be a good team player and recognize that your success depends on it.

Smart writers lust after criticism

Smart, professional writers are hungry for criticism, even greedy for it. They devour and digest it with relish. And what writer in their right mind wouldn’t? After all, it’s insightful advice from a seasoned professional who shares your goal: to make your work the best it can be and give it the best chance of success in the cut-throat commercial world of publishing.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a range of editorial letters: from your agent, from your USA hardback editor, your USA paperback editor, your UK hardback and paperback editors, your editors in Australia and Canada, and many editors preparing your manuscript for sale to non-English-speaking territories.

But what’s not to love about that depth and range of feedback? Don’t you want to improve your plot structure? Strengthen your narrative voice? Fine-tune the pacing? Enrich characterization and develop motivations? Don’t you want to polish every sentence until it shines? Sure you do.

Successful editing is all about relationship

But let’s not turn this into a fairy story. The world of publishing boasts both good and bad editors. You needn’t search far on social media to find horror stories of high-handed, arrogant, unhelpful, over-critical editors.

Still, I’d caution you to take each anecdote with a good spadeful of salt. Plenty of budding authors brook no criticism of their writing and work themselves into an almighty huff at the slightest hint that they may not have written a masterpiece right out the box. And the socials are everyone’s favorite place to let off steam.

However, a good relationship between author and editor is essential. That relationship must be one of mutual respect and trust. To develop a strong and happy author-editor relationship, you need to have confidence in your writing and faith in your editor. The probability of an agent or publisher opening a submission to find a print-ready manuscript — even from an established, bestselling author — is so low it’s negligible.

Despite the rumors you may have heard — from disgruntled wannabes, most likely — editors aren’t bullies. While the author stands to benefit from any positive changes made to improve their book, it’s their name on the cover, and the author always makes the final decision about which editorial changes they accept and which they reject.

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down

No talented editor will send you a critique which has nothing but negative statements about all the clunky, leaky aspects of your work or that, like a rotten tooth, need extracting. They’ll always temper the critique with emphasis on the parts which work well and justify the time and effort you’ll both put in to fix the rest. After you’ve gone through all the hard work, inner struggles, and revisions needed to get a draft ready to submit, it’s a cruel editor who doesn’t remind you why they fell in love with your book in the first place, and why they believe they can sell it after it’s knocked into shape.

Likewise, it does you no service to be a needy author who falls into deep depression without being coddled in a fluffy blanket of praise. You need to be a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-on-with-it writer when you get to the editorial stage. A professional writer understands the value of criticism and works with it, putting their ego aside in the best interests of the book.

If you’ve completed a manuscript or have a work-in-progress that you’d like to get critiqued, read this next:

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