How to give constructive criticism
Posted by inkpop on December 26, 2009
inktip #12: HarperCollins editor Laura Arnold shares advice about giving writers effective feedback
That’s not quite the case for Laura Arnold, a HarperCollins editor who’s worked with Lesley Livingston, Mette Ivie Harrison, Jason Henderson, among other authors. As a book editor, she spends much of her days focused on the art of constructive criticism.
The key, Arnold says, is creating a collaborative process in which the editor and writer work hand in hand to produce the best possible stories. “[The authors] always welcome my feedback and never make me feel like it’s me against them—it’s always ‘us’ working to make the book even better,” the New York editor says.
Here, Arnold talks about how she gives authors constructive criticism.
DEVELOP A COMFORT LEVEL
In terms of formality, Arnold alternates her communication style with authors, depending on how long she’s known them. “You develop a comfort level as time goes on,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that I become extremely blunt and insensitive just because we email often.”
Arnold will often talk about the plot and discuss whether it makes sense, is logical, and moves at a good pace. Then, onto characters. “Are the characters acting in ways that seem consistent with, well, their characters?” Arnold says. “We’ll talk about the voice of the narration: does it feel too young or too old? Is the content of the story in line with the voice and the audience? Later on we’ll work on the details—individual sentences, word choices. I go line by line through the manuscript, and then I send it to the author for his or her review.”
BALANCE THE POSITIVE WITH THE NEGATIVE
Even the most talented writers rely on editors for advice and critical feedback.
The hardest part about being an editor or inkpop Commenter is giving an honest critique in an encouraging way. As Arnold explains, it’s way better for the author to receive negative feedback during the development process than from a book reviewer after the book has been published. “Because then it’s too late to fix!” Arnold says.
So how do you balance the positive with the negative? “I always start with something positive and continue working positive details into my feedback,” Arnold says.
As for the not-so-positive feedback, Arnold phrases it in a positive way. Instead of saying, “This is bad,” Arnold will say, “This isn’t quite working. What do you think about this suggestion instead?”
Here’s another one of Arnold’s examples of balancing positive with negative:
I thought the descriptions of the countryside could be cut down in places, but I really enjoyed the descriptions of your main character’s inner thoughts.
If you’re not crazy about a writer’s work but can’t put your finger on why, think about plot, prose, characters, voice, and pacing. “Are those qualities of the story working for you? Analyzing these building blocks can be a good starting place for articulating your constructive criticism,” Arnold says.
CREATE A FIXABLE SITCH
Before sharing your criticism with a writer, think it through. Is your criticism about something that’s repairable—for instance, “I thought your main character should act less wimpy”? If so, good.
On the other hand, if your criticism is about your personal tastes or general incompatibility—for instance, “I hate science fiction”—that doesn’t help the writer.
“The former is constructive criticism. The latter isn’t,” Arnold says. “If you feel something isn’t working in the story, don’t be afraid to put that into words. A simple ‘I don’t like it’ isn’t helpful!”
MAKE A SUGGESTION FOR CHANGE
If you can envision an element of a story being better, consider not just critiquing but offering a suggestion.
A good suggestion for change:
I wonder if changing the age of Samantha from 14 to 17 would help, since, to me, she sounds older than 14.
A bad suggestion for change:
Samantha seemed way too immature.
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