“If it weren’t for editors, writers would never drink.” – George RR Martin
One well-known fact about writing is that writers are not always great editors. In fact, writers are often very bad editors. They tend to be married to their work in a way that makes it easy for them to overlook flaws both tiny and monstrous. Having an editor, whether it’s a peer, colleague or hired help, is at the heart of a writer’s success, and anyone who has done any editing knows how true this is. When your team hands you content that, in their opinion, is ready for the world to see, you are faced with the difficult task of tweaking bits here and there or, in some cases, suggesting major overhauls to a mess of a piece. So how can you approach this task without bruising an ego or damaging your relationships with your writers?
The Power of Praise
To get a little more insight into the editing process, we sought out some help from writer Luke Barr, author of Provence, 1970 and former editor at Travel & Leisure Magazine. He told us the key to maintaining a good relationship with your writers are these three magic words:
“This is good.”
Barr says that starting the critique off on a positive note like this helps the writer feel recognized and appreciated for the hard work they’ve put into their piece. “I’m a writer. I know that as soon as you send your work in, you are waiting for feedback. “There is a psychological and existential need to get praise, even just a little bit of praise, and to get it right away,” he says. “You make yourself vulnerable every time you put your work out there into the world and it’s a lot easier to receive criticism after you hear what is good about your work.”
Simply starting off your critique with those three words, you are creating a positive, nurturing and supportive climate for any further discussion to take place.
But…Not TOO Much Praise
“At the same time, you have to make sure that your praise isn’t disingenuous,” Barr goes on to say. “You have to be totally honest as an editor, that is rule number one. If you don’t say what you want then you’re not going to get what you want. It’s about finding a balance between giving honest, positive feedback while also giving honest direction.”
Editing and Emotions
In writing nearly 1,000 articles, listicles, blogs, etc. over the past couple of years, I have realized how important getting a little bit of praise upfront can be. Personally, I’ve written for clients that nitpick tiny details and lend a sour tone to every suggestion or criticism they have. The sequence of emotions this causes goes something like this: Irritation, Anger, Frustration, Defiance, Guilt, Spite and Reluctant Acceptance. In short, you’re not getting the reaction you want from your writers by attacking them, even if it deserves a little attacking.
Barr admires a former boss at Travel & Leisure who, he said, had an amazing ability to pick up the phone and tell super high-profile writers that she didn’t like their piece in a totally honest but kind way. “She was this great, super elegant woman who had the most amazing way of interacting with writers when she didn’t like a piece. She was brutally honest, but SO nice about it. It really left an impression on me.”
This Is Good
This is good. Think about it. As a writer, you put time and effort into your work and, as humans, we are all seeking approval for our efforts. [Tweet “If a piece needs major surgery, “This is good,” will bolster a writer for productive criticism.”] After all, we’re all addicted to praise.
The worst thing that you can do as an editor is to create an adversarial relationship with your writers. Like George RR Martin said, editors are a writer’s worst enemy so you’re already walking into a potentially heated situation before you’ve even given a word of feedback. Practicing this editing tip and starting out with a compliment will kill the adversarial element and make you allies right from the get-go. Now you are working together to make something better instead of tearing down their efforts.
No one likes to believe that humans are this predictable or easily manipulated but we all are. I’m sure there have been times when a parent, teacher, significant other or friend has buttered you up a bit before mentioning a way you could be a little bit better at something. For example, imagine the difference between hearing “Awesome! Bacon and fried chicken again. I love how much closer I get to heart disease every time we have dinner together.” As opposed to “You’re so sweet to always cook when I’m busy with work! Maybe we could think up a few boring healthy recipes together sometime, too, just to extend our life expectancy?” Right away, sarcasm aside, you’re being applauded for your efforts. This temporarily inflated ego puts you in a better spot to see solutions more easily. This dynamic is at the core of a good writer/editor relationship.
The Value of Feeling Valued
The goal is to make your writers feel valued – after all, you hired them for their talent and expertise. It’s up to the editor to find solutions that both keep them happy and result in good content. When you start with “This is good” it makes both of those things easier to achieve. It puts writers in the position of knowing they have succeeded in a sense and, even if you go on to suggest drastic rewrites to a piece, they will be more receptive to it. Trust me, it’s worked on me time and time again and, most of the time, I don’t even realize it because the happy dopamine zipping around my brain from the tiny compliment overshadows it.