“There are many more want-to-be writers out there than good editors.”
— Stephen Ambrose
All right, you’re ready to submit your writing and brave your critiques, but what happens when it’s someone else’s turn to be workshopped? You take on the role of the editor, a firm but gentle guide whose feedback will help the author to improve upon his or her work. It’s a lot of responsibility—not just in helping your peers review their work, but also in delivering your critique with courtesy and compassion. Here are some tips for how to edit and respond in a writing workshop!
Reading a Piece, Marking it Up, and Writing a Response
As far as the “editing” phase goes—that is, your reading and making notes to yourself beforehand, not your participation in the workshop—you’ve got a lot of options. Some folks will read a piece once or twice before making notes, and others will edit on the first pass. Some people like to mark up the page with a pen or pencil, making notes in the margins, and others prefer to use sticky notes. Digitally, lots of editors now use Track Changes and comment bubbles in Microsoft Word. Once finished reading, some editors write a response letter that summarizes their evaluation of the piece, and others do bullet points or save their comments for the face-to-face workshop.
For me personally, I like to edit on my first pass reading a piece; I take a red pen to the hard copy (or Track Changes, if working digitally) and make notes of all of my first impressions, including arrows, smiley faces, and trying to guess what happens next. I keep my notes as legible and clean as possible and avoid cluttering the page with irrelevant notes, but I like being able to record my initial reactions. These include good notes, like circling or underlining passages I enjoyed, exceptional bits of dialogue, or moments that made me laugh or feel connected to the characters. By the end of the piece, I’d have scribbled so many reactions that a letter felt redundant, so I leaned towards bullet points or quick notes of encouragement.
If you’re a sparse note-taker within the lines, be fair to the author and write a response letter. Nothing made me angrier than getting my story back after a workshop and seeing that people weren’t making notes or marking points of discussion on the hard copies. Listening to everyone speak during the workshop can be overwhelming, and writers lose a lot in the experience of discussing their work when it falls to them to write down every comment or suggestion. Take responsibility as the editor and ensure that the author won’t forget or misinterpret your feedback. Remember that the less effort you put into helping another writer, the less motivated he or she is going to be when editing your work!
The way I see it, the editor is the first reader an author gets who is separate from the work. The author knows the material too well, and that’s how a very good writer can make an easy mistake: their knowledge of the characters and world can fills in the gaps. My editorial notes are first and foremost the reactions of a reader…just one with a more critical eye. Be aware of mechanical issues, repetition, pacing, and so forth—things all writers notice in their everyday reading anyway.
Treat other writers’ work the way you want them to treat yours. Some people mistakenly go into workshops ready to scope out the competition, which completely misses the point of the writing community. There is room on the bookshelves or in the pages of a magazine for lots of different writers, so never go into a workshop ready to cut someone down.
This rule extends to writers whose style is not your preference. If you’re a minimalist, flowery prose probably won’t appeal to you, but that doesn’t mean the person next to you won’t fall in love with it. Recognize the writing style your author is using and do your best to stick to that style while editing. For example, you may see a sentence cluttered with modifiers and want to cut every last one of them, but the skeleton of a sentence you leave in your wake isn’t going to fit this author’s voice. Consider taking out one or two modifiers and making a general note to the author about choosing words carefully so that they don’t lose their impact.
Just as writers shouldn’t argue with editors, editors shouldn’t pick fights with writers. If you have something positive to say, definitely say it! If you have a note for revision or a criticism, though, you can’t say it point-blank. Writers have put time and effort into constructing their work, so a harsh word carries extra weight when they share a piece they’re proud of with an editorial team.
If you have a snarky comment to make or want to say something just to get a laugh out of the crowd, keep it to yourself. These kinds of interjections slow the pace of the discussion, take time away from genuine feedback, and can often hurt the author’s feelings. Going for the laugh instead of giving useful comments makes it seem like you don’t take him or her seriously.
Here’s an easy way to remember how to edit in workshops: cushion your comments in kindness. Start a comment by pointing out something you thought was done well and move into a revision that could keep the positive momentum going. Engage the author with questions–show your interest in the piece and your investment in its success. When the author sees that you’re on his or her side, (a) they won’t be hurt by your critiques, and (b) they’ll be more likely to take them. Editors must earn their writers’ trust, and nobody ever earned trust by being a jerk.
It’s rare that editorial feedback is short and sweet when criticism is involved. “I like this character” is an acceptable short-and-sweet, but “I hate this character” requires explanation. Offer suggestions and guidance for how the author can improve the point. If you don’t back up your feedback, it’s easy to blow off. Here are some examples of bad feedback versus good feedback:
Bad Feedback: I don’t like this character.
Good Feedback: This character seems like he might not be accessible to a wider range of people because he’s so gung-ho to slay all dragons in a world where they’re not inherently villains.
Bad Feedback: This guy’s a jerk.
Good Feedback: This character’s dialogue seems abrasive, but he’s well-liked and respected. Maybe explain why people like him when he sounds so unfriendly?
Bad Feedback: He needs to be different.
Good Feedback: This character’s motivation isn’t clear enough. I’d like to know more about why he feels the need to leave his hometown.
Good feedback is almost always longer and wordier, but it gives authors a better idea of where to go with their work. The basis of being a good editor is being aware of your writer’s feelings. Think about the criticisms you’d like to get, the comments that helped you improve a scene you’d been struggling with or envision a new scene you never would have come up with on your own. As part of the writing community, treat your peers with respect.
Any baseball fans out there? Think of it this way: the editor is the catcher to the writer’s pitcher. The catcher can see the whole field and is watching what everyone is doing, knows what pitch is going to get past the opposition, has a plan and a strategy for succeeding. Catchers recommend which pitches should be thrown and have a dialogue with their pitchers by signaling and nodding. Pitchers can shake off the signs if they don’t feel up to it, and catchers come back with a new plan right away. Even though the catcher is the one suggesting the pitches, all eyes in the crowd are on the pitcher. When things don’t go according to plan—and there’s always a hiccup somewhere—the pressure falls on the pitcher, and it’s the catcher’s responsibility to reassure the pitcher, keep his spirits up, and help him move forward.
Let your author know that he or she has worked hard to create something and that it has potential. Especially in a workshop setting, it’s important to encourage people brave enough to share their work with the group. The editor’s job is to help the author, not tear him or her to pieces. Yes, you’re making suggestions that you think will help the piece succeed, but the author is the one who has to accomplish what you lay out. Be reasonable and understand how he or she feels. Don’t be the person booing in the crowd—be the catcher jogging up to the mound to make sure your buddy is doing OK.