An editor’s guide to giving feedback

By admin
I’ve been a fan of

The Open Notebook
WORK_OF_ART

for a long time—a great resource for science writers specifically, but full of useful, practical advice for anyone who is trying to share complex information with non-academic audiences.

They recently ran a roundtable conversation as “A writer’s guide to being edited”, which is stuffed with information and wisdom. Things I absolutely agree with: talk it through up front, don’t be defensive, think of editing as a conversation—not as somebody marking your homework.

But what I love most about it is that it’s focused on what I think is absolutely the most undercovered portion of this work: the actual creative interaction between writer and editor. You can find endless resources on generating ideas, or pitching them, or reporting, or different storytelling techniques. But this relationship is the critical engine room of creative work, and it’s where many (if not most) stories can come off the rails. We don’t talk about it nearly enough.

As somebody who has done (and continues to do) a lot of both writing and editing, I’ve had great experiences and terrible ones on both sides of the table. I’ve contributed to my share of screw-ups and tried to learn from them. I was lucky to be able to work with some supremely talented people over

the years
DATE

, but you can always improve. (In fact, when we started

Matter
PERSON


more than 10 years ago
DATE

, it was—on my part, at least—a deliberate attempt to learn how to be a better editor from some of the smartest people in the industry. A trial by fire, yes, but I was desperate to learn how to be truly excellent.)

Here are

three
CARDINAL

of the most important things I’ve learned so far.

Up front investment is worth

every penny
MONEY

My rule of thumb is that every minute spent building agreement between the writer and editor saves you at least twice as much time on the back end. If we agree now on what this assignment is all about, then the pathway forward is a lot more clear and the editing relationship can be smoother. So: What are we trying to do here? Where do our viewpoints diverge? How is the story as we see it now different from the story that the writer pitched? What approaches will we take, how will we try to tackle the big problems we can imagine? What is this process going to look like? What do we want to end up with? Talk it all through and write it down so you have a shared reference point. This counts just as much for short pieces as long ones, although the amount of time you spend up front is probably proportionate to the complexity of the story.

There is no such thing as over-explaining your edit

When I was starting out as an editor, time pressures and an inability to articulate my thoughts meant I would often make changes to a story in the edit without explaining my reasoning to the writer. Of course I knew the reasons—sometimes it was to move a piece into house style, sometimes to find a better way of communicating an idea, sometimes to tweak the structure of a piece. I was confident in my decisions, but because I hadn’t learned the demands of

daily
DATE

or

weekly
DATE

production schedule, I was focused on the end result and not giving detailed feedback to the writer. To them, my changes seemed arbitrary. The reasoning had to be interpreted from the end result. This made it unclear and therefore hard to learn from. Even the smallest changes deserve a note to explain why—and the biggest changes merit a conversation.

Deliver your feedback in multiple formats

There’s usually a gap between the vision of the editor and the vision of the writer. That’s OK—you’re

two
CARDINAL

different people. But the gap gets wider and more problematic when there’s miscommunication. Sometimes this isn’t even a case of explaining yourself clearly or not; it’s because you gave your edit feedback in a style that suited you, rather than in a way that suits the writer. People receive and process information in different ways, in educational theory this is traditionally thought of as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning. Even though we’re talking about the written word, it’s not true that we all learn best through visual techniques of reading and writing. Sure, for some, clear written direction can be the key that unlocks the answers. But for others people, the best way to receive feedback is to talk it through. And the best method can change depending on the circumstances, so even if you think you’ve cracked it with a particular writer you know well remember that things change.

So, whenever possible, I try to deliver feedback and edits in multiple ways simultaneously. In my case, that’s usually a combination of a written memo, conversation, and notes on a document.

Here’s my favored process: I write up a high level memo that outlines my thoughts on a particular draft without getting into the line-by-line stuff. Before sending it, I get on the phone with the writer and talk through these thoughts. Then I adjust my memo based on our conversation and send it through as a follow-up, accompanied by an edited document with line-by-line notes.

This is pretty time intensive, and it absolutely feels like a luxury when I can do it this way. But in my experience, it’s worth it because it gives you both the best opportunity to actually hear what you’re saying to each other. And really, that’s what you are trying to do: listen. Because ultimately, you’re

two
CARDINAL

people on a team who are trying to do the exact same thing: make the best piece of work you possibly can.


Photograph
PERSON

used under

CC
ORG

attribution license from jksphotos.