For many writers, myself included, there is nothing quite as nauseating as showing your work to another human being. We spend hours cultivating and nurturing our essays, novels, and collections, hoping our readers will do the same (and tell us how wonderful our writing is). We fear rejection and confusion, so we guard our work as carefully as possible until we absolutely have to share. Anyone who has participated in a workshop understands these feelings. We have all witnessed a generous and constructive conversation between fellow writers instantly devolve when one critic informs the writer they “just don’t get it.”
While it’s natural to be nervous, embracing editorial feedback is the key to writing at your best. In my experience as a student, writer, and publishing professional, I’ve met some fantastic (and some horrific) editors who have taught me what to look for in someone who edits my work. Below are three essential qualities, and while these may seem like no-brainers, trust me when I say they are rare. I learned the hard way.
- Your editor communicates.
We were all English majors, right? We excel at communication. For some, though, conveying feedback is a challenge. While working on my first AP English essay in high school, my teacher suggested I cut some material on the first page. However, there weren’t any edits marked on the first page, or any indication in her comments about what she felt should be cut. I later asked her what I could eliminate. She then drew a giant “X” through the entire first page.
It’s important that editors specifically explain what’s working in your piece, what isn’t, and why. “I don’t like it,” as well as “I like it,” won’t cut it. They must be able to describe their thoughts in detail—line by line, if necessary. This feedback helps you understand where your writing soared, and where it flopped.
- Your editor asks questions.
Again, this may seem obvious, but it’s so important that editors ask questions about what you’re trying to say, instead of trying to figuring it out on their own. For example, I wrote a movie review for my college newspaper, and my editor was confused by one of my sentences describing the ending of the movie. Instead of asking for clarification, he changed the sentence himself. In the process, he changed the ending of the movie.
Great editors understand that a harmless edit changes the entire meaning of a piece. If something isn’t clear to them, they’ll note it and discuss it with you. If you tried to get fancy with your metaphors and they fell flat, they’ll ask you about (they’ll even help you make it work).
- Your editor wants to create your best work, not theirs.
The best writing advice I ever received was from a former boss, now mentor, who edited a blog post I wrote while interning for her. Before we reviewed it, she told me the edits she had made could only be done to a piece that was well written. When she passed the draft back to me, now covered in red ink, my heart swelled instead of sank. I knew she wanted my writing to be the best it could be.
Look for people who want your story to shine, not their story or their version of your story. Great editors maintain the integrity of your content and style while making suggestions to strengthen them. They’ll show you ways to make your work stronger, and which path they would recommend, but they’ll leave the final decision to you.
Elizabeth Venere is a marketing associate at Cambridge University Press. She lives in Brooklyn and loves travel writing and any crime drama. You can reach her at elizabeth.venere (at) gmail.com.