When it comes to constructive criticism, remember...it’s about the words, not the writer.
One of the most difficult aspects of working with an editor, for a client, is learning to take constructive criticism from an impersonal headspace. Detaching oneself from one’s work is hard regardless of which side of this equation one is on. We’ve put so much of ourselves into what we’ve done, and invested so much time and effort, that when someone says “This is a problem because X,” we often react as if we’ve been told we’re the problem.
You Are Not Your Work (and Vice Versa)
My job is to polish the client’s words. Make sure they say what the client intends to say, without impediment. I work hard to ensure the concepts the client wants to put forth are what come through in the writing. Correcting grammar and ensuring good usage and style are simple things, really. Most clients don’t even question those suggestions; they accept them and move on. But the same is not always true when it comes down to constructive criticism of the work. For instance, sometimes the big picture’s not quite what they think it is. Or, perhaps it’s what they intended, but I’m fairly certain it won’t play well in Peoria, as they say. I’m reading as a reader and as an editor. And as a reader, sometimes I notice things aren’t quite what the client intended. At the very least, in cases like this, I query. If it’s a really big red flag, I might even suggest rewrites either in-text or as comments, in addition to the revision letter.
This can be particularly difficult when the problem is a reflection of societal ills like sexism or racism. It’s hard for a client to hear that their work may be perceived as sexist or racist. Equally hard is for the editor to phrase such constructive criticism in a way that cushions the writer’s feelings. (We know writers are fragile creatures. So are we, honestly. We’re all only human, you know?)
One of my most challenging experiences, as an editor, was having to tell a client that what they’d done was unlikely to be well received by readers. They’d written a group of characters who were superhuman, other-dimensional, genderless beings who could choose to present as male, female, or androgyne. So far, so good. The trouble was, every one of them was presented as male and white. Why bother telling readers they’re genderless, then? Why not just admit they’re all presenting as white males? It’s pulling the rug out from under readers, setting up an expectation and then not even attempting to deliver.
From my point of view, it was giving lip service to eliminating sexism and then flipping it off.
After I explained the basic issue, my suggestion was to gender-swap a couple of them, give them nongendered names like Robin or Terry, and go from there. That was met with, shall we say, unpleasantness. I was told that my criticism meant I had the problem, not the writer. Clearly, I’d been exposed to “toxic masculinity” for most of my life, and that was preventing me from understanding the purpose of the characters. The client played the “I’m the least sexist person you’ll ever meet, just ask my friends and my spouse” card. And it went on in that vein for a couple of pages.
When Constructive Criticism Hits a Nerve
Obviously, I’d hit a nerve. And now I had to respond to that without falling into the same trap.
I let it all sit for a couple of days, so I could look at it without overreacting. Then, I composed my response. I explained that I understood how hard it is to separate one’s self from one’s work. My criticism had nothing to do with the author as a person (I didn't know this client, aside from our email relationship) and everything to do with how the client's words would likely be interpreted, and what that might do to the reviews. (At the time, only friends had read the work.) “All I have to go on is your words on the screen, and they’re telling me that you’ve said one thing and done the opposite. I’m suggesting a way for you to correct that.”
Arriving at a Compromise
In the end, the client decided to add a personal note at the front of the book, explaining their reasoning for making these characters all male. While that wasn’t what I’d hoped for, it was a far sight better than what we’d had before. Much better than implying a nonsexist approach and then providing nothing of the sort. We finished the project and ended on good terms.
That is what I always hope for, and I am pleased to say it has happened every time since I began this gig. Diplomacy isn’t just for diplomats.
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