A large piece to being a good writer is being a good critical thinker, and that’s a difficult skill to teach. If you are an editor or beta reader trying to help out a creative writing client whose final draft is in bad shape, or are a writer that’s received negative feedback on your work, here are some guidelines to help produce a stronger next draft. This advice can also apply to helping writers with early draft, unpolished work.
First, manage emotions.
No matter what role you play in the editing process, it can be a tough giving and receiving criticism. So for all parties involved, employ the following tactics and common courtesies throughout your working relationship to keep it from breaking down:
- Outline expectations and boundaries from the outset. Revisit them as needed.
- Be patient, kind, and above all, professional.
- Keep both feedback and push back constructive and respectful.
- If you find yourself getting irritated or upset, don’t react. Just take a step back until you’ve cooled down. Communicate only with a clear and level head.
Don’t front load the editing process.
Editor/Beta Reader: Even if you’ve already seen a sample of your client’s work, have assessed their level of polish or their skill level, read the work straight through prior to your first round of feedback. Or if it’s long, read it chapter by chapter (or whatever length of passage you agreed to look at from the outset). Once you’ve read it, jot down your overall, general feedback. You’ll want to work your client through that before getting into more specific revisions, let alone proofreading. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting a lot of time up front, because your client has rewrites to do, and it’s all just going to change again.
Writer: Your project should be in the best shape you can get it before it ever hits the desk of your editor or beta reader, unless they’ve previously agreed to look at rough, unpolished material. But regardless of what stage your project is in, keep in mind that there is much more to editing than proofreading; proofreading is just the final step in the editing process. The first round of edits will be general feedback.
Meet each other in the middle.
Editor/Beta Reader: If your client is struggling to understand why a passage isn’t working, even after explaining to them why, read it out loud to them. Or if their entire work is in bad shape, and they don’t understand why, have them read it out loud to themselves. At the end of the exercise, have them talk through what they think works, what doesn’t, and why. If you’re willing, take it scene by scene, chapter by chapter.
Writer: When you read your work out loud or listen as parts of it are read to you, it’s easier to catch bad grammar, mistakes and leaps in logic. If you still can’t see what’s not working, step away from your project for a few days, or longer, to reset your brain. You’ll want to come at the next draft with fresh eyes.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat, as needed.
If the writer still struggles, they need to hit the books and study.
Editor/Beta Reader: Point them in the direction of writing that exemplifies the tone and style you are looking for or that aligns with the writer’s goals. Having examples will help them visualize what the end result should look like (or should strive to look like).
Writer: After graduating from college and taking a job at a public relations firm, I struggled to break free of my academic writing style, which didn’t fit in my new work setting. Thankfully, my boss offered me great advice that helped get me on the right track. And it’s advice that I use both at work and writing fiction to this day, because even though the writing styles are different, the process remains the same.
He told me to look at other writers’ work, and pay attention to how they write. And whenever you come across a sentence or passage you love, read it over a few times, sit with it, mull it over, and figure what about it makes you love it so much. Then employ the lessons learned in your own writing. Rudimentary examples of things to pay attention to: how the author varies word choice, sentence structure and length; how and when they use and vary verbs and adjectives; how they avoid using passive voice and produce stronger, more powerful sentences because it; how they structure a scene, character interaction, and dialogue; and how they slowly, craftily reveal important world building and character details without a big ol’ info dump on the reader.
At the end of the day, editors and beta readers can only do so much to help their creative writing clients. The rest is up to the writer to hone their skills.