Editor Jessica Faust at BookEnds Literary Agency blogged a few years ago on “How I Edit,” ending with these words:
As far as I’m concerned you can run with my suggestions or you can ignore them altogether and go off in your own way. I don’t care how you want to fix the problems I see, I just care that when I read it the next time those problems/my concerns are gone.
This inspired some thoughts on the differences between critiquing and editing. Both involve handing your precious manuscript, the child of your dreams, the darling of your creative muse, to another person and asking what they think of it. In other words, even as we cringe inwardly at the prospect, we have granted permission for another person to say things we aren’t going to like. Of course, we want to hear how much they loved it and all the things we did brilliantly. The point of the exercise, though, is to improve the story.
The most useful things I find in critiques are reader reactions, comments like, “I’m confused,” or “This doesn’t make sense,” or “I don’t believe this character would act this way.” Or, simply, “Huh? You’ve got to be kidding!” Snarkiness aside, such comments tell me where there is a problem. The reader may be right about what the problem is, or what they object to may be the tip of an iceberg and the true problem lies elsewhere.
In critique format, I really, really don’t want to be told how to fix those problems, and I don’t know many writers who do.
At this stage, we’re likely to be still in the throes of figuring out what the story is about — not our first preconceptions but the underneath, true, deep story. While it’s invaluable to hear where we’ve gone off the tracks, we are the only ones who can find the tracks we need to be on. More times than not, those helpful comments come from the critiquer re-writing the story in her or his own imagination. That’s natural because it’s not fully formed yet, but no less un-useful.
Editorial feedback comes at a different stage of creation. We’ve found those tracks, and the story feels like it’s come into its own. (Of course, we could be Way Off Base, but there’s nevertheless a sense of integrity to the story at this point.) Now the question is how the story can become more perfectly itself. That’s been my experience of working with a good editor — she or he has the ability to look into the heart of what I’m trying to do, what the story is trying to be, and to see what would make it more so. So that’s one major thing — the story’s in a different stage.
The second differences is that — ideally — I’m working as a team with my editor. This does not mean she gets to re-write or re-envision my book. It does mean that she brings expertise to the discussion. I am under no obligation to accept her suggestions of how to change the story. But I’d be throwing away an immensely helpful viewpoint if I didn’t give those suggestions careful consideration. In my own experience, my editors have been right on in most of this type of feedback, and in those instances in which I objected strongly, I found the discussion led to even better ideas. Regardless, these are issues it behooves me to take seriously, whether I follow my editor’s suggestions or come up with my own solutions.
I value both critiquers and editors; I think each brings something important to the maturation of a story. It’s just not the same thing, at least for me.
The painting is by Renoir.