The Art of Compassionate Critique: Why Building a Strong Editor-Author Relationship is Vital to a Book’s Success

Editors have one of the most delicate jobs in publishing. It is their responsibility to take an author’s work and help shape, transform, and develop it. An author’s piece of writing could be something they’ve worked on building for years, and things will change after putting it through the editorial process—beloved sentences or characters can get cut, and pieces of dialogue or character descriptions can get challenged or flagged as problematic. Taking criticism is never easy, especially when it comes to a piece of creative work. Respectful and open communication between author and editor will lead to the most fruitful editorial process, which is why establishing solid author relations needs to be a high priority for a book editor.

Know Your Author

Every author operates differently when it comes to writing style, communication style, and how much back-and-forth is necessary to produce the most promising iteration of a manuscript. There are so many things to take into consideration when working with an author, including but not limited to background, age, subject matter expertise, and past publishing experience. Debut authors may need their editor to act as a more involved guide while wading through the lengthy editorial process, while experienced authors can tend to be more independent. A first-time author or an author writing about a subject very near and dear to them may be more protective of their work and therefore more resistant to editorial critique. Tone of voice is everything, and regardless of who your author is, your commentary and corrections will hit that sweet spot when you can balance professionalism and authority with a healthy dose of understanding and encouragement. That being said, the better you know your author, the easier it is to strike the tone and type of feedback that most effectively gets them energized to engage with the work.

Things to Do

The most important thing to do as an editor working on author relations is to be respectful and supportive throughout the entire process. The most effective relationships flourish with mutual respect, so starting off on the right foot is key. This looks like praising the aspects of a given manuscript that the author did really well. It’s important to remember that they wrote an entire book, and that in and of itself is a mental and emotional feat. Be sure to point out the pieces that are working well, and conversely, make sure not to over-gush, thus rendering your adoration insincere. Empty praise is easy to spot, and no one wants to feel patronized. Another important thing to do is be a problem solver, not a Negative Nancy. When highlighting areas of a manuscript that need further development, be sure to explain your choices as well as offer alternatives. When offering suggestions be sure to bear in mind each author’s specific voice, and demonstrate to your author that you understand their writing style by presenting options that sound like them (just a little bit tighter, more precise, etc.).

Things Not to Do

As an editor, you will not always work with authors or manuscripts that you particularly enjoy. But as long as you are pursuing a professional relationship with an author, it’s important that they never doubt you are on their side. As much as you may want to, never mock or denigrate an author’s writing. It is not your responsibility to be head over heels for every sentence they write, but editing is not a power struggle and the intent of editorial conversations should never be to emerge victorious over the writer. Secondly, keep your temper even and your patience in check. Patience is a virtue and certainly not one that I excel at, but gentle and consistent kindness will make an author more receptive to correction; impatience or a sharp tone will almost certainly make them defensive. And lastly, and possibly most importantly, do not forget whose name is going on the cover. Editing a book is never about changing it to be the story you would write, but rather about making the manuscript you’ve been given into the best version of itself possible.

Editor and content director for ClearVoice, Chels Knorr, says, “Writer-editor relationships walk a fine line between familiar and professional. They’re built on mutual respect. They’re transactional but also, because they involve something as subjective as writing, deeply personal. The writer must trust the editor’s fresh eyes and insight. The editor must trust the writer’s voice on a deadline.” When most effective, the author-editor relationship is mutually beneficial, mutually enjoyable, and produces the strongest iteration of a given manuscript.

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