We’ve considered that there are different degrees of editing but there are also different ways of approaching feedback. When we give a writer feedback the idea is that we’re helping them improve their work not just saying ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’. Writers have put time into their words and we have to consider our responses; this doesn’t mean we need to write an essay on why we think something but we do have to consider why we think it, this could be as simple as the phrasing feels too wordy and suggesting ways to cut it down.
We must always bear in mind that despite the term, critique, we’re not criticising writers we’re trying to help them. Once I got the feedback, ‘you need to make your paragraphs longer’, when I asked why I got the response, ‘because they’re short’. This didn’t help me at all and it’s not productive, a more productive response would have been something like, ‘Your paragraphs seem to short, they make the scene move very fast’. At which point I could’ve considered ways to make the scene move slower if need be, unless I wanted it to move fast. By adding a considered statement the writer then has the ability to go, ‘yes, that’s a fair point’ or ‘no, I don’t agree’. And should you ever wonder if you’re ‘qualified’ to be a writer (anyone can be a writer) this particular piece of feedback came from someone studying a PhD in Creative Writing.
I find that forming feedback points as questions can also be helpful and get the writer thinking in a critical way about their own work. For instance, if there’s a section with a lot of exposition we could highlight it and ask ‘does the reader need to know this now?’ In theory the writer can then consider this in terms of their overall structure, particularly if we’re editing in a workshop and don’t have the complete manuscript to judge for ourselves. The writer might then be able to determine, ‘yes, they need to know this’ or ‘no, they don’t’ and having been drawn into question they may then choose to cut down the exposition and get to the point more quickly. Then again they may not, edits are advisory, not dictatorial, we’re not telling the writer they must change something we’re suggesting their writing might improve in some way if they make a change, ultimately it is up to the writer.
This point and reason approach also applies when we’re making points about what they did well. Instead of saying, ‘I like this’ perhaps say ‘I like this because it shows X about the character’. In this way not only showing the writer they did something well but also why it works well, which is as beneficial as knowing why something might need changing. We may for instance have too much information overall but there’s one line that stands out as conveying the entire point. If we say ‘I like this’ they won’t know why and might still cut it with the rest but is we say ‘I like this because I think you summed everything up perfectly in this sentence’ they might decide to cut the rest but keep that line. Whereas without the reason it can also be confusing if we’ve suggested something should be cut but then highlighted part of it something that doesn’t without giving a reason why.
It can also be helpful to have a summary at the end to provide context to the notes, summarising the strong points and the points that need consideration, particularly if these are things that occur regularly. Rather than go through and mark every piece of dialogue as good we can write a summary at the end about how we enjoyed their dialogue and why. If they’re regularly over using a word or perhaps need to consider restructuring a scene or chapter order we can explain in more detail why we think that and what we think are the pros and cons of doing it. This helps the writer make informed decisions about their work. Either they can see that something was working as they wanted or it wasn’t and why it wasn’t.
The why is always important in editing. Context helps writers make decisions, points without context create confusion and doubt.