It’s the classic editor’s dilemma: how to give constructive criticism without shattering another writer’s hopes and dreams into small, dust-like shards. I know it all too well. Give me a manuscript to edit, and I’ll send it back with Track Changes red ink and hundreds of little Microsoft Word comments in the margins.
That’s right. Hundreds.
Most of the time, they’ll be as polite as a dignified British butler. Unless you’re my friend, in which case they’ll sound a lot like I talk. Which is not particularly dignified. To illustrate, I asked my roommate if I could include some of my favorite comments that I made on her fantasy-in-progress.
Highlighted: “The wall was a mere three feet high.”
My Comment: Why even make it that high? Explain. (To keep sheep in? To establish zoning for taxes? Because it looks nice on a postcard?)
Highlighted: “I stared at him.”
My Comment: Um, wasn’t she staring at him before? Only say this if she notices something about him that makes it significant. Like, “I stared at him. He was smiling like my imprisonment was a good thing” or “I stared at him. He started to do the chicken dance.”
Highlighted: “Nothing could make me feel worse at this point.”
My Comment: “Never say such things. It’s like, “How could this be any worse?” Then, CLANG! Anvil falls from the sky, crushing Wiley Coyote.”
Highlighted: “Death. Death. Death.”
My Comment: Catchy little slogan.
Thankfully, that particular manuscript gave me lots of places to insert comments about the things that I liked. Not all manuscripts do. Another one of my writer friends recently talked about a book she was given to review that had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. When searching for something positive to affirm so that the review wouldn’t be a hopeless swamp of negativity, she came up with this gem: “Your sentences were so complete.”
To which another writer added, “Good for you—you used punctuation!”
And the game began. How many compliments can we come up with to affirm a writer with absolutely no talent? Here are just a few.
“I loved the way you placed those helping verbs.”
“Your plot made me feel a variety of strong emotions.” (Please don’t specify which ones—disgust, nausea, and abject horror don’t have very positive connotations.)
“You created such sharp, crisp contrasts with those paragraph breaks.”
“Times New Roman is my favorite font ever!” (If another font was used, find out the name and compliment it…unless it was written entirely in Comic Sans or Papyrus. Then just cry or run to the nearest shredder.)
“Wow, I’ve never read a plot exactly like this before.”
“I love the way you set the tone of the story right away.” (Example: you knew right away that it would be horrible.)
“I was so glad to see that there were no cliché quotes from twentieth-century existential philosophers in your dialogue.” (Or any obscure compliment like this.)
“I can tell that you put a lot of thought into the capitalization at the beginning of sentences—that area of mechanics was virtually error-free.”
“Your ending was so final!”
I hope this can be a helpful resource in the struggle between truth and love in editing. Because even though we all know we’re supposed to enjoy learning about our weaknesses so we can improve, secretly we all want to hear our editor tell us some things that we did well too. Hopefully you can find more to say than just these compliments.
So go out there and edit, red pen and all—but be nice.