What you say isn’t as nearly as important as how you say it. As an editor or beta reader, using a positive, constructive tone is a skill you need in order to collaborate with writers.
I’ve been on both sides as editor and writer. And I’m married to a writer-editor. I’ve learned a lot about giving constructive feedback by the way Travis and I have read each other’s work and exchanged our opinions—for over a decade now. We’ve had rough patches, but after all that, it’s his comments and encouragement that truly motivates me.
So how can tone make the writer less antsy about your edits? If you’re a beta reader, a writing group member, a freelance editor, or anything else in between, here are some tactics on how tweaking the tone can get the job done.
Cover Your Butt
Disclaimer: I’m not the best editor. I have over three years of professional/school experience, I edit for a living, and yet I make stupid mistakes all the time. I’m a better substantive editor than copyeditor, and so if I see something I’m not sure of, I look it up, or dress up my comment as a suggestion.
For example, I have my preferences. I experience sensory overload when every single sentence ends with an exclamation point. I save that kind of writing for Facebook birthday wishes—not for essays, blog posts, or novel writing. No one shouts that much, right?
But that’s a pet peeve; it would seem very nitpicky if I changed them all and didn’t say why. It makes the document look real red with no real reason why.
So whether you’re confident or not, explain yourself. If you know Chicago Manual of Style can back you up on a grammatical rule, then make it a teaching moment—if it’s a super serious and prevalent issue. Yes, you are likely a good authority on grammar, spelling, and the like, but the editing process isn’t a game of who’s right and who’s ugly-sobbing over their laptop.
I often plainly say, “I’m changing this thing in all instances as a suggestion. You can veto that change if you don’t like it.” When writers feel like they have options, everything just goes more smoothly. Being frank-yet-friendly in my MS Word track changes makes my world go ’round.
Make it Sound Like Their Idea
The piece you’re working on is not yours. You didn’t write and you didn’t conceive it. It’s an honorable thing to be trusted with revising and improving someone else’s brain child. And thus, be prepared for sensitivity; a badly-phrased comment meant for a paragraph or chapter is often interpreted as a dig on the person’s overall ability to write.
To avoid stepping on toes, help the writer make a judgement call. Often, I like using the readers as my quasi-scapegoat or shield when making big suggestions. Y’know, the suggestions that means hours of rewrites if they follow it. I put myself in the target audience’s shoes and make comments like “Readers might not understand why ___.”
Notice how I through a might in there. I love using might, maybe, or could. It totally covers my butt, brings up potential problems, and softens the blow.
Another tactic is phrasing your suggestions as a question. An example: “Wouldn’t this be a better break to the chapter than this later paragraph?” It’s kind of like inception; planting your own idea into someone else’s mind. Neat, huh?
When a comment is phrased like a question, it’s not necessarily passive aggressive; it just leaves room for questioning. It’s saying, “I think this is a good idea, but do you think this would benefit your piece?” You’re offering your professional opinion yet recognizing them as the authority on their topic or project.
If they make the change, that’s great. If not, that’s also great.
Join Their Side
Writing a book is friggin hard. Imagine how much harder it is to write something when you don’t think anyone around you appreciate your victories or believe you can finish.
No matter what, you’re the writer’s confidant. Harsh words and contempt don’t get them closer to accomplishing anything. It often brings them to a grinding halt instead.
Show you’re on the writer’s side by giving genuine compliments. Let them know if you’re seeing improvement, if a particular phrase or dialog was witty, or other great things. You don’t have to always be looking for mistakes or weaknesses.
I’ve asked a lot of people over the years to read and edit my work. I have developed a thicker skin and feel like I can handle criticism for the most part. But I feel more inspired and I actually improve when I’m working with people who are smarter than me, but are just as nice and supportive.
Notice that I didn’t offer any “bad” examples—writers will be on various planes of sensitivity. For example, I’m not bothered by grammatical/punctuation corrections but I am when a change involves me going back and rewriting a good deal of the novel. Obviously outright name calling is no good, but you’ll be surprised what could be considered the straw that breaks the writer’s back.
If all else fails, be open and candid with those you’re working with. Ask them if your edits are supportive and helpful. If you have a good relationship, you can figure out how to change your approach.
What’s the hardest thing to suggest to a writer? What other editing tips would you suggest besides what’s mentioned above? Share below as always.