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How to Tackle Critique Notes

Picture of edits of an early draft

I recently exchanged my manuscript with a writer friend who also had a novel she wanted me to read. We read and edited on paper (we’re old-school that way), so I now have 300+ pages with notes, plus an “editor’s letter” she gave me summarizing her comments.

I also just wrapped a big freelance project (a 24-page special section for a trade magazine) for which I served as content editor. This booklet was reviewed by five people who all provided comments via Microsoft Word’s track changes function on different versions of each article. Part of my job was to reconcile all the different files with their different comments and questions into final documents.

Is it any wonder I’ve got editing on the brain?

Now that the monster freelance job is out the door (and I have a little window before I begin the next one), it’s time to tackle these edits. If, like me, you get a little light-headed at all the work you have to do after you’ve received a critique letter and edits, these suggestions might help.

  1. Read the letter, then wait. If you get an editor’s letter or notes from a beta reader, it may be a good idea not to react right away. Give yourself a day, then reread it. I find that even when I’ve asked for notes and even if the notes support how I was feeling about the manuscript, I still feel a little pang at seeing the problems spelled out in black and white by somebody else. Waiting before I wade in to the work gives me a chance to have an initial “I-suck” reaction. With a little time I can then see the comments more clearly. Yay! I only partially suck.
  2. Read the entire manuscript before you start editing (or accepting or rejecting changes if you’re using track changes). You might find on a later page your beta reader/editor has changed her mind about an edit after she’s read more. Or you might change your mind and agree more with her edits after you see more examples of why she suggested them. Use a pencil to make notes on the page as you go (or insert comments on your document), and after you’ve gone through the whole thing look at your notes and decide which edits you want to make and which ones you don’t agree with.
  3. Create a to-do list/action plan. I did this with my freelance project and it really helped. (My friend was thoughtful enough to provide a summary of her editor’s letter, which also really helps. Yes, I do have one of the best writer-friends ever.) Do you want to tackle the easiest changes first or face the dragon right off the bat? My friend told me I need to move the main plot up. Gah! I thought I’d already done that, but, no. I still need to get things going sooner. I’m going to start with that. Then move on to fleshing out a secondary, but very important character.
  4. Don’t over-edit. I’m prone to going beyond the edits suggested. If my editor/reader wants me to change A and B, I have a tendency to assume that C, D and E also need to be changed. This time, I’m going to try very hard not to do that.
  5. Save what you cut. You probably already do this, but just in case. If you cut a scene or a chapter, put it somewhere you can get it if you decide to reincorporate it. If you don’t need it for your manuscript, you might like it enough to use it in another story. Or you can use the outtakes on your website to give readers a little added value.
  6. Trust your reader. Only let someone trustworthy read your stuff. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a writer, but he needs to be able to give you insight that’s helpful and uncolored (as much as humanly possible) by his own biases and even jealousy. My friend has read for me before and is skilled at helping me get to the book I’m trying to write, not telling me how to write the book she’d write.
  7. Finally, trust yourself. If you get feedback that you don’t agree with, maybe you know better (see Mia March’s post [2] for an example of a writer who trusted herself). Accepting criticism from a reader, a writers’ group or an editor is tricky business. It’s a balancing act involving listening to the feedback and listening to yourself.

If you have any tips for me and WU readers about handling an editor’s letter or critique notes, I’d love to hear them. Please let us know in the comments!

About Carleen Brice [3]

Carleen Brice [4] writes nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent books are the novels Orange Mint and Honey [5], which was made into a Lifetime television movie called “Sins of the Mother [6],” and Children of the Waters [7]. She’s currently at work on a novel called Every Good Wish.