• M. Christine Benner Dixon

Editors are not Your Enemy - How to Take Constructive Feedback Like a Pro

Writing is personal. It is. This is especially true of creative work, in which a writer bares their soul in 12-point serif font, but even academic writing, which is a record of one’s thought processes, diligence, and reasoning skills, can leave one feeling a little exposed. For this reason, it can be hard to have someone read your work and tell you what needs revision—the implication being: your writing is currently bad; your thoughts are bad; you are bad. This (probably) isn't true, of course, but writers fall into this spiral of self-pity anyway. I have seen it happen to people in writing workshops. I have seen it happen to students. I have even seen it happen to people who have hired me to edit their writing.


A spiral staircase, photographed from above

Now, not everyone feels this way, which is good, but if you are someone who plunges into self-doubt whenever you are edited (or critiqued), I want to offer a few alternative narratives to the one you’ve been telling yourself.


Here are some things that I, as an editor, want you to know:

  • I am approaching your work as an editor, not a reader—and those are two different things. You have asked me to help improve this piece, and so I go in looking for something that could be changed. When I’m reading for pleasure or to gain insight on a particular issue, I treat the text differently. I let the text lead without stopping to correct its posture or its dance steps. Sure, it bothers me if the text is wildly out of rhythm or keeps stepping on my toes, but otherwise, I adapt myself to its idiosyncrasies, come to enjoy them, even. As an editor, I’m going to challenge you on those things to be sure you want them in your writing. But if you tell me you do, they’re yours to keep.

  • I am on your side. When I’m editing, my number one goal is to figure out what you are trying to say and to help you say it. I go in hungry for your sentiments, your aesthetic, your line of thinking. I will highlight contradictions in your writing, not because I think you’re wrong about a particular point but because you think you’re wrong, apparently. I will draw your attention to a convoluted phrase, not because I am personally offended by it but because I think it’s obscuring your point, and I want you to make your point.

  • I find your writing exciting. I know it’s easy to brush off praise as perfunctory—just something people say to be nice. But when I tell a client I enjoyed working on their project, I mean it. I love seeing how you see the world. My work provides me with a constant stream of new ideas from interesting and intelligent people; it’s kind of dreamy. Sometimes I can’t help myself, and I’ll sprinkle in little exclamations of appreciation in my comments, but you aren’t paying me to compliment you, so I try not to get carried away.

  • I don’t expect you to take all of my suggestions. I’m here to give you options, not instructions. I trust your judgment.


Cheerleaders holding pompoms over their heads

Tips:

  • Choose well. If you run into an editor/reader who is a real jerk with their feedback, stop working with them. Good feedback doesn’t have to hurt.

  • Set boundaries. Tell your editor/reader what you want from them. If your piece is almost finished and you are not looking to add or remove sections or rework your argument, say so.

  • Recast the scene. If you are getting feedback in writing, imagine it coming from the sweetest person you know. A change in tone can make a suggestion easier to take.

Even with all of these reassurances, it can still be hard to quiet the voice of self-doubt. I know. The lessons of self-love can take a lifetime to learn. Keep trying, keep writing, keep saying what needs to be said. And if you need a cheerleader (who also corrects your grammar, questions your logic, and suggests reorganization), let me know.


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