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Resources for Writers

It might seem odd to talk about editing as an exercise in compassion. Aren’t editors supposed to look at your prose dispassionately? Not necessarily. Just like writers, editors have different attitudes and approaches. There are also different levels of editing:

  • Developmental editors seek to strengthen a manuscript’s content, structure, readability, and marketability. We may also be called structural, substantive, or content editors.
  • Copy editors primarily work to correct a manuscript’s spelling, grammar, and punctuation, making them consistent with the publishing industry’s standards (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style). They may also reword sentences to make them easier to understand.
  • Proofreaders perform the final review of a manuscript to make sure it is free of typographical errors and formatted correctly before publication.

Of these, developmental editors tend to work most closely with authors and therefore need to show the most compassion. We can support authors at any point in the creative process, from hazy story idea to first draft to publication-ready manuscript.

As a developmental editor and writing coach, I delight in analyzing what makes stories work, diagnosing their problems, and prescribing treatments with minimal side effects. I love shepherding storytellers past creative blockages or self-doubt and toward healthy, successful relationships with all stages of the creative process.

But why bother hiring an editor when you can get free advice from friends, family, or strangers on the internet? Well, have you ever had any of the following experiences?

  • A reader tells you your story is perfect and needs to be published immediately when you know it still needs work.
  • A reader who doesn’t understand your premise or genre pressures you to change your story to suit his tastes.
  • A reader points out weak spots without being able to articulate how to strengthen them.
  • A reader gives snarky, hurtful feedback that makes you doubt your story and your skills.

I’ve had all these experiences, and I’ve seen plenty of other writers suffer them too. But a skilled editor will look at your manuscript more objectively than your friends, family, or the talented people in your writing group will. A skilled, compassionate editor will care about what you’re trying to accomplish and help you get there in style.

Read on to learn more about how my editorial philosophy of Compassionate Critique works and how you can add compassion to your critiques.

What Is Compassionate Critique?

Compassionate Critique is constructive criticism, but with deeper empathy and enthusiasm. It is a confidence-building editorial strategy rooted in reverence for the time, effort, and emotion that authors pour into their prose. I edit compassionately because, as a writer, I prefer being edited this way.

Thanks to my own experiences overcoming severe social anxiety, I understand how deep the fear of showing someone your creative work can run. What if this draft is worthless? you may wonder. What I’m a bad writer? These worries, anchored in the basic human fear of rejection, can be downright corrosive, stopping you before you can get started.

But know this: I have never encountered a worthless draft or a worthless writer. It’s my job to look for potential and nurture it. I don’t think in terms of “good” or “bad” writing (or writers). I think in terms of sentences, plotlines, and arguments that work well and those that need work. It’s possible to be objective, thorough, and supportive at the same time, and that’s what developmental editors do.

Specifically, Compassionate Critique provides:

  • Encouraging, honest, solution-oriented feedback.
  • Respect for your creative vision, voice, choices, and ambitions.
  • Insight into your target audience’s wants and needs.
  • Specific revision strategies: when, where, why, how, and how much.
  • Genuine excitement for your victories—every writer does at least one thing right!

Compassionate editors are like fairy godparents for your prose. We work for you rather than against you, respecting your wishes and patiently guiding you through the process of turning your pumpkins into chariots. Or pie, or jack-o’-lanterns, or whatever you envision. Above all, we want you to be pleased with and proud of your final manuscript. Then we want to make sure it has a great time at the publishing industry ball.

Some writers crave compassionate edits more than others. If you thrive on receiving sarcastic or scathing feedback, more power to you! But that’s not my style.

The Science of Compassionate Critique

My passion for Compassionate Critique stems from my love of behavioral science. Operant conditioning—the closest thing we have to Jedi mind tricks in real life, in my opinion—describes how we learn through reinforcement (i.e., rewards) and punishment. Generally, rewards are better motivators than reproof. That’s a scientific way of saying you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Reinforcement motivates us to repeat behaviors, whereas punishment motivates us to cease them. Psychologists define these terms subjectively: results matter way more than intentions! One person’s joy is another person’s torture—sometimes literally. To influence someone’s behavior through operant conditioning, first you must find out what motivates that person specifically. This requires empathy. And you know what can deepen empathy and align motivations? A sense of compassion!

There is natural tension between the technical work of editing and the more emotional work of writing. Editors and writers clash when they fail to understand each other’s motivations, or when an editor or author must be “right” at all costs. For editors, finding and fixing errors is naturally rewarding. But for writers, each red mark flagging a problem in their carefully composed manuscript can feel like punishment, especially if snide questions or comments (or those perceived as such) accompany the markup. Authors who feel attacked or misunderstood may wage war on their editors or themselves, leading to bad experiences for everyone involved—and messy manuscripts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Editors and authors can and should be allies.

I practice Compassionate Critique because I care about what motivates authors as much as I care about their writing. I want authors to feel safe seeking my advice and inspired after receiving it. My standards and expectations are high, but my tone is enthusiastic and validating, not cranky or forbidding.

Compassionate Critique makes the editing process a little exciting instead of disheartening or traumatizing. As a result, compassionately edited authors learn to see red marks and queries as opportunities rather than threats, and they ultimately reach wider, happier audiences than they would without attentive, supportive editing.

Rewards beget rewards. Everybody wins!

Add Compassion to Your Critiques

You too can use Jedi mind tricks operant conditioning to give better feedback. People who ask you for critical feedback trust you to help them. So how do you reward their trust? And what type of feedback will help them most? Remember that results trump intentions. The tone of your feedback will shape how it’s received, regardless of how you think an author “should” feel.

Encouraging, honest, solution-oriented feedback is most helpful. The following chart outlines some key differences between helpful (constructive) feedback and unhelpful (destructive) feedback:

Helpful feedback vs. unhelpful feedback

Helpful feedback—reinforcement—fosters hope, persistence, and growth. Unhelpful feedback—punishment—provokes fear, anger, and withdrawal.

Some givers of unhelpful feedback embrace the “you need a thick skin if you want to be a writer” school of thought, disguising their rudeness as helpfulness. But you don’t need thick skin to be a successful writer. You do need courage, and you’re more likely to get that from encouragement. To give encouraging feedback, remember to compliment an author’s strengths and try to glimpse the potential in any weaknesses.

But encouragement must not come at the expense of honesty. Feedback that ignores or minimizes problems is also unhelpful. Giving and receiving uncritical feedback feels good at first—a reader may be trying to spare a nervous author’s feelings or avoid a prickly author’s scorn; an author may be starving for validation at any cost. But authors who confidently publish unpolished work will usually get punished by unreceptive or hostile audiences later.

There is a way to be honest and encouraging at the same time. Solution-oriented feedback (a) identifies the specific problem tactfully, (b) offers one or more solutions, and (c) affirms the author’s ability to solve the problem effectively. Instead of saying, “You don’t describe your settings enough,” try saying, “I often had trouble visualizing the action. Try adding a sentence or two of description at the beginning of each scene, like you did for the warehouse scene on page 8. Your description of the thick dust and heat made me feel like I was there!”

Solution-oriented editorial feedback builds an author’s self-efficacy (confidence in one’s capacity to overcome obstacles and achieve goals) by linking problems to potential solutions. It’s a means of building authors up rather than beating them up.

Receiving critical feedback stings a lot less when it’s delivered in an encouraging, honest, solution-oriented way. Science says so!

Finding an editor who treats you the way you want to be treated is worth the time and effort. If you’re looking for a compassionate editor like me, click here to learn more about my services and rates.

In a future post, I will offer tips for anxious writers on how to prepare for and process critical feedback.

I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments. What type of feedback do you find most useful? Do you prefer compliment sandwiches, blunt feedback, or being brutally roasted? Why?

One thought on “Beyond Constructive Criticism: The Art and Science of Compassionate Editing

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