Coping with Editing

Tips for dealing with criticism.

Roy Peter Clark, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #294

Advice from Roy Peter Clark:

Some good advice or criticism may be hard to take because of the way it is delivered.  Editors and teachers have been known to savage writers, bleeding over texts in rivulets of red ink.  Even when a critique is rendered with the writer’s feelings in mind, it can hit a wall of resistance.  The writer is oversensitive, or controlling, or a diva, or maybe an oversensitive-controlling-diva jerk.

Without constructive criticism, the writer cannot grow.  With it, the writer can improve a particular story and all the work that follows.  The writer must learn to accept criticism – even when it seems harsh or uninformed – as a reward rather than a punishment.  If writing is about cause and effect, criticism reveals the effect and allows the writer to evaluate the power of the cause.

So if all that criticism and pencil-editing gets you down on deadline, Bunky, here are ten lifelines to grab onto:

1. Reflect on how you handle criticism in other areas of your life.

Each of us brings our personal history to the table of writing, revision, editing, and criticism.  Without getting all Freudian, we can easily imagine that harsh parents or tyrants in the classroom can create forms of aversive conditioning that stick with the would-be writer.

A good teacher or editor can help neutralize that poison.  Keep looking for someone who can see the unrealized potential in your work and who can become an ally and partner in walking a story through the minefield.

2. Reward the kind of criticism you need.

Imagine a conversation with a supportive editor.  It requires no butt kissing or kicking, only honest appraisals of good work accomplished.  You might begin with something like, “You were right about that ending.  I’m glad you encouraged me to make one more phone call.  It worked.”

Lane DeGregory, Pulitzer-Prize-winning feature writer for the St. Petersburg Times, gives public credit to her editor Mike Wilson.  Lane admits to being a person who is often “blinded by the good.”  Mike reminds her to look for the “bruise on the apple,” the shadowy parts of characters that reveal the moral complexities of life.

3.  Pick your battles.

It won’t help you to be one of those writers who argue over every comma and semicolon.  There are such writers, and when they appear in the office, editors cringe and avoid eye contact.  Learn to distinguish between changes to your copy you can live with—and those you can’t.