How good editors deliver bad news

I’m an editor. That means I’m going to read what you write and then tell you that it is wrong.

You might think people would resist that. But in fact, the opposite is true. I recently did a detailed and highly critical edit of documents by two very smart people. I then met with them by video. They were not just gracious, they were grateful.

How did that happen? It wasn’t by accident.

Principles for editorial criticism

There are five basic principles here that make all the difference.

  1. Always criticize from the reader’s point of view. If I tell you “I think this is wrong,” we can have an argument, and you may resent me. But if I tell you, “I think readers will have a problem with this,” then any argument that follows will be about the what’s best for the reader. Now we are arguing about the relationship between the reader and the text, not about antagonism between you and me. And that’s a productive discussion. If the writer chooses to fix the problem in a different way from what I suggested, that’s fine, because they will be addressing the reader’s problem.
  2. Recognize positives, not just negatives. If the basic idea is strong but the writing is weak, start by praising the basic idea. If the elements are there but they are in the wrong order, note that everything important is already there. If the sentences are too long, just say “You’ve got what you need, all we need to do is make the sentences shorter.” All writers are doing something right. And they’ll be a lot more willing to listen to the criticism if they hear what they did right first.
  3. Always give a reason why you want to change something. For example, “I think readers won’t understand this unless you explain the other principle first.” Or “the repetition of the word ‘leverage’ is likely to become distracting, so let’s cut it back somewhat.” I can always back up the reason I suggest a change. More importantly, I put that reason right in a comment in the edited text.
  4. Solve the problem. Include not just a criticism (“confusing,” “awkward,”) but a solution. I almost always have an edit that I think will solve the problem. If I don’t, I say so: “I couldn’t figure out what you were getting at here, so I can’t really suggest a better way to write this.”
  5. Include an edit memo. The edit memo is a summary of my impressions and the edits I make multiple times in the document (for example, too much passive voice, title is weak, buried the lede). If the writer reads the edit memo, they understand where the biggest problems are what they’ll need to fix. That’s helpful for them to read before they open the manuscript and see bunches of edits and comments.

How this works for specific types of edits

Given these principles, I often have to add comments about specific problems. Here how those types of edits look in my editorial feedback.

  • Scattered ideas. “I’m having trouble getting a handle on the main idea. Is it x, y, or something else? We should choose a focus and then restructure the writing around it.”
  • Weak or clichéd idea. “It seems like your main idea is x. I’ve heard that a lot before, for example here and here [with links]. What makes your presentation of this idea unique?”
  • Repetition. “This is the fifth time you’ve mentioned x. Can we bring them all together in once place?”
  • Paragraphs too long. “Everything you need is here. But stylistically, it’s less intimidating if we add some more paragraph breaks.”
  • Sentences too long (which is way more common than you might think). “Breaking these sentences up will make it easier for the reader to digest the ideas first, then move on to the consequences of those ideas.”
  • Passive voice. “It’s hard to figure out who is doing what here, because the sentences are in passive voice. Can you clarify?”
  • Meaningless platitudes. “This isn’t really news to most people — they’ve heard it before. What’s your unique spin on this?”
  • Jargon. “I didn’t understand this. Do all of your readers know what these terms mean? Can we explain in language that more of them will understand?”
  • Too self-centered. “This document is about your ideas, not just about you. Is this story going to help the reader?”
  • Weasel words (vague intensifiers). “The harder you try to tell us how great this is, the less people will believe you. It’s more convincing without these words.”

This is far from a complete list. Whatever the problem is — unless it’s a simple grammatical or spelling issue — there’s room to explain why the reader will be better off if you fix it.

I’m no saint

You might read this and think I’m the most understanding and gentle person in the world. Not even close.

If you looked over my shoulder and listened to me mutter while I’m editing, you’d hear lots of whining and gnashing of teeth.

“My God, three out of every four sentences is in passive voice.”

“I’ve never seen a single paragraph go on for two and half pages before.”

“What a chore — I had to google half the words in this paragraph.”

“Oh, jeeze, yet another post about how to be authentic. How original.

“I think this is the sixth time we heard how great Amazon is. It would be a lot shorter to write ‘Amazon is great, just do what they do.’ “

“This is some premium quality bullshit.”

“Who the f— is the audience for this supposed to be?”

“OK, that’s five logical fallacies in three sentences, that has to be a record.”

Sometimes I tell my wife about these experiences, “Yes, they actually used the word leverage 136 times in one book.”

But none of that makes it into the edit memo or the edited manuscript. Sometimes I gently suggest that the writer has lost the plot, and there is a little friendly sarcasm here and there, but I leave all the antagonism out of the critique.

Why? Because you hired me to help you make it better, not to tell you that you’re a loser.

And it’s always possible to make it better.

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  1. I presume you wrote this to give us a practice exercise: “For principles for editorial criticism”–(I think you meant to say Five not “For”.

    1. How graciously you are accepting these critiques, and the approach the posters took in delivering them, is a “live” example of a positive editor/writer exchange! How cool is that!

      I also appreciated this list and am gratified to know that I already follow most of the principles in it. Perhaps that’s why I generally don’t get a lot of resistance from the authors. There were a couple of new things though that I really appreciate.

  2. Thank you for today’s posting will be valuable. I volunteer as an ESL tutor (but I’m a retired engineer) and will use today’s wisdom in assisting my adult student improve her written English.

  3. What’s great about these is that if the writer is receptive, this input can help improve their future writing. It’s getting good editing feedback AND some on-the-fly writing instruction. Who doesn’t like 2 for 1 deals?