hey look another writing question
November 6, 2021 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Working on a proof for a piece that has been accepted for publication, am looking at the editor's notes and am surprised and a bit hurt by one of them. I promise this isn't an ego thing. But is this normal for editors to do? I've never been published anywhere where an editor worked with me on refining the work.

I have no problem with getting feedback on improving my writing. I find it super helpful, especially since I don't really have a writing community and my attempts at starting a virtual writing group earlier this year fell flat due to life getting massively in the way.

However, there is one note on the proof that the editor sent back to me that seems super harsh and kind of insulting. Five pages into my piece - it's a creative nonfiction/memoir piece, and in those five pages (technically only 2.5 pages single spaced) I provide a lot of context and setting for what is to come in the following 10 or so pages - I get to a key narrative point that sets the stage for the conclusion of the piece. Without that prior context, the rest of the piece simply won't make sense.

Here is her note, verbatim: "5 pages spent leading up to this. 5 PAGES. OOOF."

I don't know if this is a note I was meant to see or not - maybe this was only meant for the other editors to see? Again, I don't mind feedback, and I don't think those five pages are the world's most brilliant prose that society would suffer from not reading. But I feel like a note saying "this feels too long, can you shorten/condense some of the information here?" would have been a lot kinder than what essentially amounts to UGH I HAD TO READ FIVE PAGES TO GET TO THIS CRAP.

(The great irony, too, is that this is a piece that I developed in a workshop setting and actually got live human feedback for, and nobody raised an issue with these five pages.)

The rest of the notes on the piece are much kinder and full of helpful feedback that I appreciate. But I find myself totally stopped short by this one comment. It just feels... rude? And unnecessarily so?

Am I being oversensitive? It's kind of soured me on wanting my piece to be published by them, but if I'm overreacting and this is par for the course from editors then I'll adjust my attitude.
posted by nayantara to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a technical writer, and a key component of my job is me sending out what I'm working on for feedback and review. Receiving that feedback and using it to improve my documentation is also a key component of my job. I'd consider it to be one of THE key components of my job, actually. And sometimes the feedback I get is...less than nice. Maybe not intentionally rude, but kind of terse and to the point.

I've learned, over the years, that my reactions to critical feedback always fall into this same general pattern:

Me, reading feedback with suggestions and corrections for change:
1. What? Screw you...I described this perfectly... (this lasts for about a minute)
2. Let me do something else for a second...
3. Hmmm...(thinking back to the feedback comments)
4. You know, I can see why a user might be confused there...(this usually happens about 5 minutes into this mental process)
5. OK, they might have a point here, let me work on this...(this usually happens around the 10 minute mark)

Granted, it took me about 5 or so years to recognize that I go through this thought pattern every. single. time I get any feedback that's critical. But now that I know this, I can accept it and move through it to get to better documentation.

All of that is to say that yes it's normal to have an initial negative reaction to critical feedback. But if you want to keep doing this, you need to learn to at least be open to the fact maybe, just maybe, they're right, even if they were a bit rude about it. And if you're willing to be open to that, maybe you could take that feedback and implement it, and find that it improves your writing.
posted by ralan at 7:48 AM on November 6, 2021 [14 favorites]

I mostly was edited as a staff writer/editor but have received many much harsher notes. For example, "These two paragraphs are shit. Fix them."

So if your question is, is this par for the course - I think the answer is, yes it can be at certain publications. Should it be? I don't know, it probably depends on your generation or micro culture or insider/outsider positioning. The magazine teams I worked on, even when supportive, usually had developed a form of get-to-the-point language where the emphasis was for the feedback to be clear, and not always focused on tone. Workshops are very different environments than professional editorial teams.

A workshop is there to elevate its participants' abilities. A publication is there to publish the best work. Those things align, especially long-term, but it's not always an editor's job to make the writer feel great. (The best editors I think can largely do both, but you're not always going to be working with the best editor on their best day.)

The best advice I got for delivering feedback is "take the position of the work," so rather than "OOOF" it would be "this piece feels front-heavy and loses the emotional thrust visible on page 7" or whatever. But this editor did get across to you their feeling about the pacing, so from that point of view it's successful.

I think if you start pulling pieces because you get this kind of note you will be limiting yourself a lot about where you can place pieces.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:48 AM on November 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I definitely am not going to pull the piece - it was just jarring to read amidst a lot of very helpful feedback that was delivered less harshly. There certainly are extraneous details that I'm happy to omit to strengthen the beginning so again, it was less about the content of the feedback and more about the "Whoa, I wasn't expecting THAT from her!" Every bit of correspondence about this piece from this editor has been about how excited she is to publish it, so it was just like an "Ouch!" moment.

It sounds like I'm being oversensitive - again, never worked with an editor before - so I'm not going to fuss anymore about it. I absolutely want this piece to be the best it can be so I'll take the spirit of the feedback and not concern myself over tone.
posted by nayantara at 7:57 AM on November 6, 2021

Best answer: Before I even opened up the "more inside," I said to myself, "I bet this is a memoir, and I bet the feedback is that there's too much lead-up to the main piece of action."

Yes, the editor could have been a little more delicate about it. Maybe something like, "You're going to lose most readers in these five pages because they don't need to know this to be pulled in by Key Narrative Event."

You're laboring under a misconception that you have to prep the reader with context. It's exactly this "not making sense" that compels a reader to keep reading.

Also unless you were in a remarkably disciplined and rigorous workshop, please treat them as writing support: people who encourage you to stay in your seat and develop better skills. But it's rare for writing groups to be incisive and direct with feedback on what's not working in a story.

Signed, former developmental editor.
posted by cocoagirl at 8:06 AM on November 6, 2021 [32 favorites]

Best answer: I definitely understand your response, and I think her mistake here was being too casual with someone she doesn't have a close relationship with. I've done critical feedback in a lot of writing situations (beta reading, writers groups) and that is the way I would phrase something to someone whom I have a strong editing relationship with and who knows firmly that I love their work. "Five pages is too long to get to this, which is the important meat of the story" is shortened to "five pages, oof," which means the exact same thing.

So your response is very normal and understandable, but if you translate the way she said it to what she means, it's not bad criticism. I see how it comes across as harsh, but I think it's more about presuming an intimacy that you two don't have yet. Which can happen when you're editing; hours into the edit on your fourth time through the piece, you feel like you and the author have been in the trenches together.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:11 AM on November 6, 2021 [17 favorites]

I agree with the above that reacting to writing criticism is challenging / frustrating, and forces you to confront the fact that no matter what you do, people will have a wide variety of reactions to just about anything, also with quite varied strategies for expressing those reactions. It's also the case that people often tend to think their reactions are the "right" one, even experienced readers, which can lead to an insertion of their own ego into feedback -- it's very hard not to do this to some degree. My strategy (in responding to academic reviews) is to accept that any given negative reaction I get is probably a reflection of something that could be changed in the writing (or argument, or overall structure), though it's still usually up to me to decide what to do about it. So a way to take this is to accept that at least some readers will have a similar reaction -- and this editor has (for whatever reason) given you an unfiltered version of the possible reaction. This is actually useful, though there may be more constructive ways the feedback could have been provided.

Also, for what it's worth, it may help to contemplate this *rejection letter* of all things for Ursula Leguin's The Left Hand of Darkness that was going around twitter the other day, and essentially includes a better presented version of very similar feedback: https://twitter.com/ShelleyStreeby/status/1456361625724743695. In some ways, perhaps it isn't even wrong, but the fact that there are people who have this sort of reaction to the novel doesn't change the facts about the quality/importance of the novel or whether this editor made a huge mistake.
posted by advil at 8:23 AM on November 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

The way it was phrased was overly harsh, but the feedback is correct. Backstory needs to be sprinkled into the narrative. When you lead with pages and pages where nothing much happens, most people stop reading. You say you need to set up the action, but you really don't. You need to make people curious, enough to stick around to find the answers to their questions.

If you are someone who reads a lot of classic literature, you might want to spend some time reading just modern lit to see how things have changed. Many writers are surprised to find that prologues don't fly, because some of their favorite books contain them.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 8:26 AM on November 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a copy editor, and since the other comments were helpful and kind, my guess is that this editor put that in as some kind of placeholder and planned to get back to it and revise it but for some reason wasn't able to or overlooked it when going back for another read (if there was time for another read).

As a writer, you are putting time into making sure your prose is as perfect as you can make it, but editors often work under crazy time constraints because organizations need to save money. It's way faster to write "oof" than to explain what's wrong, and the editor might have wanted more time to figure out how to write something helpful. I have definitely fantasized about making that type of comment, but since I'm super cautious about forgetting to change things, I would never put something mean into a manuscript with the intention of fixing it later.

Of course it hurt your feelings - that kind of comment would be painful to anyone. And of course, the editor should have put in something nicer and more helpful. If all of the comments were like that, some type of action might be in order. But since it's just a one-off, I would file it under "mistakes that the editor would probably feel mortified about" and try to let it go - except for whatever self-care you use (complaining to friends, taking a bath, basking in the awesomeness that they want to publish your work).

Also, please don't let my comments make you think that editors are going around trashing you behind your back. No matter how accomplished you are, whenever you expose your writing to anyone, including teachers, editors, and writing group members, you risk putting in something that really needs some work - I've done it myself. I guarantee you that this editor has seem much worse than taking five pages to get to the point. You are brave and wonderful for putting your writing out there, and you're obviously doing something right with the success you've had. I know it's hard to let this kind of thing go, and be kind to yourself while you're working through this, but that is ultimately the answer here.
posted by FencingGal at 8:26 AM on November 6, 2021 [19 favorites]

I think her mistake here was being too casual

I was thinking this too. Granted, I grew up in a relatively abrasive (or, looked at another way, straightforward) culture, so to me that note doesn't even read as rude - it reads more like a "you and I are collaborators, working side by side on the same team, talking shop" kind of thing, where you're less careful to frame things politely and sensitively because you've just both got your sleeves rolled up together examining this piece and it doesn't feel personal to you, and you forget that your collaborator actually has a personal connection that they might be sensitive about. To me I'd just take it as "she really cares about this piece being strong - her editing isn't just going through the motions" and build her an identity (in my head) where she belongs to one of the more ...forthright strains of humanity that I know and (mostly) love.
posted by trig at 10:10 AM on November 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

My writing is mostly for academic presses and journals, where the feedback tends to be couched more gently, but in the work I have done for commercial nonfiction venues, I have gotten some pretty blunt feedback. Once you get beyond the initial hurt response, those sorts of comments can be really useful. In their book Sharing and Responding, the writing teachers Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff note that one kind of useful feeback is to give a "mental movie" of how you, as a reader, are responding to a draft. Knowing that, at least in one experienced reader's mind, you've buried the lede can be immensely useful. After all, unless you're a prominent scholar in a field whose work simply must be taken into account by others, no one has to read your work. A lot of the writer's skill is in making them want to continue.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:15 AM on November 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Both things are true: this is more harshly phrased than is ideal (I would never send a note like this to an author, at least not one I hadn't worked with extensively and built substantial trust with; sometimes you do get to the point where you can be like "come on you know better than this" but it takes years!), and also you are being sensitive. (I would not say OVERsensitive—you're being as sensitive as you're being! People are sensitive about personal writing! It's not a fundamentally wrong or problematic reaction, but it is a reaction from the heart and gut.) I think it's likely that either a) this note wasn't meant to reach you in this form or b) the editor feels that you have a more intimate relationship than you do (see above re: building substantial trust—it can actually be a sign of respect to be this casual, just one that misfired in this case). But also, it's going to be so important for your equilibrium to start separating your emotions from the editing process ASAP. This is not a commentary on your life, your thoughts, or even your writing. It's a commentary on how long, quantitatively, it took you to get to the point. It took too long. That's all! The editor should have been gentler and many probably will be, but others will be harsher, and the same will hold true: their commentary will not be commentary on your value as a person, the value of your story, or even your writing skill. (I am sure you know this on some level but it can take a lot of work to really believe it.)

I do want to flag one thing:

The great irony, too, is that this is a piece that I developed in a workshop setting and actually got live human feedback for, and nobody raised an issue with these five pages.

Please put this aside. Not all editors are good editors, but on the whole, editors know how to edit better than writers do, which is why they are editors. The fact that other writers didn't flag something, especially a long discursive lead-up to the point, is NOT evidence that the editor is wrong; it's evidence that the editor is an editor.
posted by babelfish at 10:17 AM on November 6, 2021 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a book editor and I echo what others have said: there may be a useful note here but the editor delivered it incorrectly, particularly because you guys don't have a relationship yet. But also...I have a handful of clients for whom I've edited more than 20 novels, and I don't know that I'd leave a note so casual for any of them. I do have shorthand-type notes with them, but this one? Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:27 AM on November 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: The thing is, I know I can be long-winded (look at some of my question history here!) so I'm TOTALLY not offended by the actual substance of the note. Just the delivery. I think those who've pointed out that it's casual in a way that implies a closer relationship than what actually exists between me and this person (I don't know her at all, we only have been corresponding since her publication picked up my piece) have cottoned on to why I had that "Ouch!" reaction. I wouldn't have bat an eye getting this feedback in those words from my best friend of 20 years (also a writer, often my beta-reader, calls me out on my shit constantly), and I wouldn't have been bothered at all getting this feedback in those words from the managing editor of a regional arts publication where I am a regular contributor (I've been writing for them for four years and she and I have become buddies via our working relationship).

So like I said: I'm going to take the spirit of the feedback and ignore the tone. (And maybe in my mind hope that she meant to go back to that note and rephrase it before sending it to me but never got around to it.)
posted by nayantara at 11:21 AM on November 6, 2021 [6 favorites]

The most painful feedback I ever got on a fictional piece of writing was just one word in a comment bubble: "LAZY." The most painful I ever got for a piece of nonfiction was "Why did you think I would publish this?"

So maybe par for the course, but I do think the best reader/editor is one who helps you see the potential for something to be even better, rather than being like "wow what a mess." I recently was asked to read over a screenplay that was an offensive dumpster fire but did not leave any comments as harsh as your person's.
posted by johngoren at 5:23 AM on November 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

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