Editing vs Critiquing

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.

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Editing vs Critiquing — 11 Comments

  1. Interesting. I don’t separate editing and critiquing the same way; by the time I show a story to my crit group, I’m usually not “in the throes of figuring out what the story is about.” (If I’m still there, the story isn’t ready to be read yet.) The only real difference for me between the editor and the critiquer is that one is paying me, and the other isn’t. 🙂

    Having said that, I often break that sort of commentary down into three stages:
    1) What isn’t working
    2) Why it isn’t working
    3) How it could work better.

    Not everybody is going to be able to answer all three questions — not all the time, not on all stories. And even with the best critiquers/editors, their answers to #3 will be very hit-or-miss, because those usually boil down to “here’s how I would do it.” And they’re not me. Every once in a while, my reaction to that is to punch the air and say “Eureka! You’re a genius!” . . . but more often I use their suggestions to figure out how I want to fix it. And that’s true of both the people who are paying me, and the people who aren’t.

  2. Interesting, Deborah. I don’t see any difference between editing and critiquing. I try to respond as a reader–my comments as I read show what book I’m reading, so the author can get a better idea of how her structure is rebuilding in my head. Maybe I’ll talk about why I’m getting the impression, or will call out patterns that are super familiar to see if the writer wants to use it or not.

    The thing is, when we write a book, we’re inside it, we know everything that is going to happen, and our sense of the pacing or of time can be skewed because it takes us so long to write it. In reading, we spend a few hours. And we don’t know where it’s going, so it is going to have a different “shape” than it does for the author.

    Because I’ve been reading for over fifty years, and thus have experienced a lot of patterns, I can make a guess at how a wider readership might react, either that, or try to suggest what I think the readership is going to be. And why.

    Finally, because I’m a visual writer, I will point out stuff in sentences that might seem tiny and inoffensive when encountered once, but in the aggregate will create an impact–is that what the author wants? Sometimes it is. (I critiqued a ms once whose author cherished her cliches because they had once had truth, and so they were beautiful to her.) Sometimes things like scaffolding were invisible to the author, as they were to me for an embarrassingly long time.

    The thing is, I’m still learning about writing, so I share what I’ve learned. Maybe it’s useful, maybe not. But the author will see what I saw, and can take or discard my reactions as needed.

  3. From my perspective of admitted inexperience compared to y’all, I see critiquing and editing as different stages of story development, even though the critique and editor might be the same person. It’s the state of the story that makes the difference.

    Regarding suggestions on how to fix problems: I used to hate them, but now I love them. What made the difference was seeing those suggestions as clues rather than directions. Rather than reject an unworkable suggestion right away, I began asking why the critique thought it was a good solution. Oftimes the answer is, “Because that’s how they’d do it.” But just as often, the reasons existed in my own storytelling. Perhaps I’d unwittingly set up expectations in the wrong direction, or a certain character wasn’t connecting well with the reader, or the cultural clues I’d given hadn’t ruled out certain options. Those answers are usually found when I make myself justify why the suggested solutions won’t work.

    And the most important question I ask any critique reader/editor: If you’d just picked up the book to sample it, where would you have stopped reading? No matter what role in the story’s development that person is playing, I gain a valuable piece of information.

    • Yes! I want that, too (knowing where someone stopped) and if I trust someone I’m critiquing, I’ll let them know that. (If I would have stopped. I also tell them when I’ve been sucked in, and where, and how, if I can.)

  4. I do agree with this, Deborah. There is a difference between the two processes IF the writer asks for critiques at an early stage. Sometimes getting a view of the story as an infant is really useful, particularly for new or beginning writers, or for long-time writers who are stuck on something. I’ve sent the URL of this post to my writing group as something to think about. As usual, it’s a question of what works for each individual. There’s no reason to get a critique if it doesn’t work for you.

    A third function of critiquing though might be to ask — is this project commercial or should I aim straight out for self-publishing? Notice I say “might be”. These days there’s so much confusion about what an agent can or cannot do for even a “name” writer that it’s something we all need to consider when it comes time to send a work out.

  5. Oh goodness — I’m an editor who critiques! While I am correcting mistakes, I am also asking questions such as those posed in your article. I may then offer suggestions for solving the problem, or I may leave it to the author. I don’t want the author to feel they’ve lost control of the story. Compromise is generally involved. My goal is to finish with both of us happy with the results.

  6. This was a great, thought-provoking article. I edit and critique, and come from an academic background where critiquing a work meant something far different than editing.

    As an editor now, I do a couple of read-throughs and try to compartmentalize my “hats.” The first reading is just to slap out truly egregious continuity or factual errors, punctuation and grammar mistakes, misspelling, and the like . . . and to familiarize myself with the story and characters. The next, that’s where I think like a reader-who-wears-an-editor-hat: is the character fully drawn? Is the dialogue stilted? How’s the continuity in general? Plot holes? Could the order of events be changed to better effect? Is there too much or not enough description? Are the same cliched phrases used constantly? Is it engaging? Do I care about the characters? I do this for minutiae AND for the story as a while. I completely respect authorial voice, but my job is to help the author create the best story which is THEIRS, not MY notion of what their story should be.

    Marie’s three “rules” for editing…love them!

    “Having said that, I often break that sort of commentary down into three stages:
    1) What isn’t working
    2) Why it isn’t working
    3) How it could work better.”

    You encapsulated what I aim to do very well.

    I tend to see critiquing (and this is merely my POV) as more of writing a review, for which I (of course) am not paid. And yes, I critique novels in my head, too. (Professional hazard.) There, I am not working formally as a team with the author; I am offering my personal opinion of how much or how little I loved a book or story. I try to be objective, but sometimes I love or hate a book so much that my tact is not so present…but I always offer cogent reasons for what I adored or despised in a MS.

    Now, if an author wants a formal critique about a WIP, if I’m a beta reader for a friend, then I tend not to do Track Changes (except for errors; I can no more ignore a grammatical/punctuation/spelling error than I can not breathe) but rather take good old-fashioned legal pad notes, and write a general critique page regarding the whole of the WIP I’ve covered and focus more on the story as a whole.

    I think the best editors are voracious readers, people who LOVE books, who read tons in their area of genre-expertise, and also read widely outside it. They respect authors. They ADMIRE authors. They get inside a story. They love language…and boy howdy, those English degrees everyone laughed at taught me how to critique well, and several years of teaching high school and college comp were worth their weight in gold (the salary was…not) in making me a speedy and accurate proofing queen.

  7. Thanks for this, Deborah. It was an engaging read. As an editor, I offer a clear difference between a critique (or what I call a “manuscript review,” on my website) and an edit. The critique offers pages of suggestions on plot, flow, character, setting, etc., while an edit is an in-text (read: track changes in Word) line edit that addresses more of the technical aspects, but also addresses larger issues, such as areas of confusion or inconsistency. And of course the author is always free to accept or reject any suggestions.

    Thanks again for the read.

    -Valerie Brooks

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  9. Excellent distinctions. I rely on my beta readers for critiques, then revise and edit again before sending my work to my editor. Then we go through it all again. Both processes help to make my books the best they can be.

  10. I am presently attending a critique group for my WIP. Basically I want to see people’s emotional responses to the material I am writing. I think that that is the most important function of the critique group. The suggestions of one’s fellow members of the group can be divided into wheat and chaff. The trick is to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, utilize the former to your benefit and discard the latter.