In theory, our email alerts have no way of making different sounds based on the contents of the emails they’re announcing. Yet, as someone who gives and receives feedback, I’m firmly convinced there’s a special thud when editors’ emails arrive in an author’s mailbox. Loudest of all are the alerts where an editor has sent lots and lots of suggestions in no priority order, almost like the email provider knows how overwhelming they can feel.
Being able to successfully triage and respond to feedback is likely one of the most hard-earned skills an author can develop. The skill, though, is essential for maintaining forward progress on a manuscript and preventing being overwhelmed or feeling dispirited by the process. One way to develop that skill is to establish a routine.
GROUND YOURSELF IN YOUR WORDS
First, ground yourself in your manuscript. Before opening the email and scanning eagerly for the praise (which is totally understandable, we all do it), take a beat to celebrate your book and characters. What about your manuscript do you love? What made you want to write in the first place? Then, remind yourself where you were when you sent off your manuscript. Did you ask for something specific? How were you feeling in general? Spending just a few minutes anchoring and reminding yourself can help ensure you stay in control of your writing and prevent any hard-to-hear feedback from nourishing the pettiest, most critical voices inside your head.
It’s helpful to figuratively (or literally, depending on your flexibility) square your shoulders, straighten your spine, take a few deep breaths, and fill your heart with the joy and delight your book gives you before looking at your book through someone else’s eyes.
READ THE FEEDBACK STRAIGHT THROUGH
Second, read their feedback straight through, beginning to end, and document your reactions. Giving quality, useful feedback to authors is complicated, and some editors are better at it than others. If you have a long-standing relationship with your editor, you may have already established a give-and-take, back-and-forth routine.
If this is your first opportunity to get feedback from someone new, that relationship probably doesn’t exist yet. As such, they likely presented the feedback in a way they’re used to, comfortable with, or have used with other authors. In a practical sense, this means it’ll be up to you to figure out the best way to approach the information. You’ve squared your proverbial shoulders and reminded yourself of what you like about your book, so let’s get to that first read*.
Their feedback is in service to that goal. But since they’re not in your head, they don’t know how you’ll react to their advice. Your first pass should be about getting a general sense of how they suggest you move closer to publication, feeling the emotions the feedback raises in you, noting or documenting them, and then letting them go.
If you can, print out a copy of the email and any attached feedback, even if they sent back a version of your manuscript with embedded comments or notes (especially if this is the first time working with this editor). A hard copy takes your words off the screen and gives you space to document your observations. As you read, take notes on your feelings about the feedback. I’m a big fan of 😃’s next to suggestions I agree with or ideas I hadn’t considered before, ❓’s next to feedback I’m not sure I agree with, ❗’s next to information that’s surprising to me, and ☹️’s where I might disagree. This first pass is focused on your feelings about and reactions to the feedback so you can process them without getting stuck.
The truth is there is no one right way to respond to someone else’s thoughts on your writing. (There is a wrong way. Don’t email your editor and tell them they’re wrong and bad at their job and you never want to work with them again. That will not go well. Unless what they wrote is racist, sexist, ableist or otherwise focused on you and not your writing. In that case, drop me a line and I’d be happy to help you think through a response. ) A useful resource is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, a 2014 book by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. They start off by organizing our strong, negative responses to feedback into three categories, which they describe as triggers. A truth trigger is when we feel a piece of feedback is simply wrong. The editor told you to change a fact that you know is correct. Or, they tell you to change a sequence of events in such a way that contradicts the science or history in your writing.
A relationship trigger is tripped when the feedback doesn’t match what we expect from the person giving us feedback. For example, the editor tells you they’re only going to do a “light pass” but sends back pages and pages of notes. Or, someone hired to do grammatical copyediting offers developmental feedback about your plot, characters, claims, evidence, or setting. So, instead of focusing on the feedback, we shift our focus to the editor, the person giving us the feedback.
The third trigger, which they call identity triggers, are about our sense of self. If, on your first pass, you came across a line that made your stomach sink, your heart race, and blood pressure rise … if you felt the feedback in your bones, that line was likely linked to something about your identity. The angriest frowny face I ever jotted down in the margins of feedback was when an editor wrote in a comment box, “I was surprised by how little this part was fleshed out because I thought you said you were an expert on this topic.” I saw red.
However, after sitting with the editor’s note and considering what was triggered for me, I realized that I took the feedback so personally, my reaction blotted out my efforts to presume positive intentions. Once I got around my hurt (AKA cleaned out the fridge while grumbling under my breath) and went back to my manuscript, I saw what the editor saw. I thinned out a section because I was worried about boring my reader with too many details and had leaned too far the other way.
Once you finish reading the feedback, making happy and/or frowny faces in the margins, do something distracting like take a walk or clean a room. The goal is to give yourself mind and body time—thirty minutes to an hour—to see what settles and how your initial reactions soften or harden with some distance.
DECIDE WHAT TO ACCEPT, REJECT, OR QUESTION
Fourth, decide what you’ll accept, reject, or question. One of the thing spelled out in my contract with my authors is that it’s their manuscript; they always maintain control. They can accept, reject, or question anything I offer, and I never change anything without their consent. So, when you go back for your second read, remember that it’s your book and start moving forward to make your book better. Consider taking notes on a separate sheet, so you can begin to prioritize. It may even help to create a three-column chart.
|I agree with …||I disagree with…||I’m not sure about..|
|Your 😃’s can go here||Your ☹️’s can go here||Your ❓’s can go here|
I primarily work as a freelance editor and, as such, have personal relationships with authors and their writing, independent of a publisher or outlet. Not all author-editor relationships work like that. You need to balance your response with the messages from the person giving you feedback. If you see phrases such as, “I need you to,” “You need to,” or “Would you,” the editor is cuing you about what they think is important. If the words that follow are triggers for you, brainstorm ways to respond as ignoring it will only work temporarily. For example, if an editor says, “I need you to fill out the backstory for this character before chapter three” and you vehemently disagree, consider why you disagree and what was triggered. Be sure to mark it with an asterisk in your chart or notes so you don’t forget to follow up in an email.
Consider what your editor puts at the beginning of their feedback. Some editors use “Dear Author” letters where they speak to the bigger issues in your manuscript rather than write in the document. Much like when we make shopping lists, we tend to put the most important stuff first. It’s safe to assume that the things your editor mentions first are the most important. Unless, of course, the last paragraph starts “the most important thing is,” then consider your response to what they want you to do first. If you disagree, articulate why in a note or to a writing partner until you decide if you’re going to address the feedback or question it.
REPLY (CONCISELY) TO YOUR EDITOR
Fifth, reply to your editor but don’t feel you need to reply right away. Or, if you do, “Thanks for the feedback. I’ll follow up shortly with questions” is reasonable. (Then be sure to follow up within a week or so. Any longer and you and your editor are likely to forget details.) When you’re ready to reply, after you’ve coded and reflected on your triggers, focus on the most pressing issues. Consider starting sentences with phrases like, “I’m struggling to understand why you want me to [something you disagree with.] Could you tell me more about your thinking?” or “You suggested I should do [this]. I’m more comfortable with doing [that], and here’s why. Any objections if I keep doing [that]?” In other words, respond with the assumption that you and your editor are on the same side.
If possible, keep your email focused on three to five clarifications at a time. Any more than that, and it’s likely to be overwhelming. Also, if you start with the big stuff first, you’re more likely to get answers that will address small questions you had. Finally, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification, especially if you’re unsure what a piece of feedback means. Putting on my editor hat, I can promise you that an editor would rather answer a clarifying question about a piece of feedback then have to repeatedly remind the author to address an issue each time they submit a draft.
EDIT, REVISE, OR REWRITE
Sixth, get to editing, revising, or rewriting. Since you’re dealing with the things you disagreed with or question in an email to your editor, you can start attending to the feedback you know will make your book better. Consider using that first column, I agree with, as a to-do list. At the end of a work session, go back to the feedback email or documents and cross off items you’ve addressed. You can add items when you hear back from your editor. Before making changes, though, confirm with your editor how your changes should be made in your manuscript document if you’re not sure. While some editors ask authors to identify changes to drafts they’ve already seen through features like Track Change in Word, not all do. It’s better to be sure you’re clear before making edits than trying to reconstruct changes from memory if an editor asks.
GIVE FEEDBACK ON THE FEEDBACK
Finally, give feedback on the feedback you received. Being methodical and purposeful when given feedback has the short-term benefit of demonstrating you’re a responsive author. Longterm, it helps you develop a writing routine that can give you a better sense of your strengths and weaknesses as an author and strengthen your craft. Fine-tuning your feedback routines will help you anticipate where you need support, so you can ask for specific feedback when submitting a manuscript to an editor.
Once you hit your groove in the revision process, consider sending your editor a quick note highlighting what worked for you and how the editing is going. Consider one paragraph that starts with, “I found it really helpful when you,” a second one with, “I struggled with … In the future could you please,” and a third that’s basically, “thank you.” This act can help you build a relationship with your editor and perhaps even inspire you to receive those revision emails with grace and gratitude, rather than dread and procrastination. It can even help make working with an editor one of the best parts of writing a book, rather than the worst.
* For some authors, opening the email with the feedback is the hardest part. Hopefully, anchoring yourself in your book was enough to prepare you to read the email. If not, give yourself one day to put it off. Then, in 24 hours, remind yourself of your awesomeness and click that open button. You got this.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 Romance Writers Report