How to Handle Editorial Criticism Like a Pro
5 Battle-Tested Strategies You Can Use…Today
When was the last time you had to deal with criticism?
If you’ve worked with an editor, you’ll know how difficult it can be to deal with criticism.
Working hard on an article or book chapter only to get it back covered in red ink or with a request for a major rewrite isn’t a pleasant experience.
But here’s the thing:
It happens to every writer, and it’s part of the job. Failure and rejection are pit-stops along your journey to becoming a better writer.
I know this from personal experience.
My Big Mistake
Several years ago, I worked as a freelance journalist for an Irish technology magazine.
My editor wanted me to write a 3000-word feature about the then new Digital Audio Broadcast radio (DAB), a relatively technical topic.
I interviewed several radio experts, asking what DAB meant for the general Irish radio listener.
The interviews went well, so I included them almost ‘as is’ in my article.
I was confident I knew what I was doing, but the truth is that the article wasn’t particularly good. I didn’t work hard enough to make it easy to understand for readers who were not technically minded.
I know this (now), because my editor asked me to rework most of the piece.
“The raw version of your article came across as three interviews meshed together, and was confusing. Be careful to fully define your subject matter before diving into expert opinion…as this can be off-putting and makes you seem lazy.”
At the time, I was annoyed about having to put in the extra work, and felt like my editor had it in for me personally. Who’s he to criticise my hard work?, I thought.
Now, I know this was a mistake.
Why Your Editor is Your Ally
Like with managing deadlines, new writers often struggle with negative feedback from an editor.
When you send what you think is a finished article, having to do more research, or rewrite the article feels like a frustrating step backwards.
But it’s important to remember one truth: Your editor wants you to write something their readers will love.
I’m sure that’s what you want too.
So when your editor asks for more research or a rewrite, they have both your and their readers’ best interests at heart.
That said, frank editorial feedback can still be hard to take. Here are 6 strategies to help you deal with criticism like a pro:
1. Separate Yourself from Your Work
When a plumber fits a toilet, they don’t view the toilet as an extension of themselves.
When a farmer milks a cow, they don’t throw a temper tantrum if someone complains about the milk being sour.
Your writing isn’t any different.
When an editor criticises your work, it’s not personal or an excuse for getting stressed.
Their criticism is not a judgment on whether or not you are a good or hardworking person.
Get some distance from your work and you’ll be able to evaluate your editor’s advice on its merits alone.
In my case, I needed to listen to my editor. He knew better than I what would work for his readers; it was his job. I should have separated myself from my work, and listened to him.
2. Have More than One Writing Project On the Go
You may love them all at first, but not all your articles or stories will succeed.
Sometimes, it can take months to write something your editor likes; on other occasions, it may only take a few hours.
Writing is curious like that.
But if you have more than one writing project on the go at a time, it doesn’t matter as much if one of your articles needs significant reworking, or even if it flops.
Because you haven’t invested all your creative energy in a single writing project, you’re less likely to feel like a failure when you are criticized.
The best part? You can always work on another of your articles until you feel more encouraged about fixing the piece in question.
3. Get Beta Readers
Some writers feel their editors are neither approachable nor forgiving, which makes them afraid to send in their work.
If you’re worried about how your editor is going to receive your work, show it first to someone whose opinion you trust. Ask them if they think the article works, if there are any obvious mistakes you’ve missed, and what you can do to make it more readable.
This person could be a colleague who is more experienced than you or an eagle-eyed family member who is great at catching typos.
Writers like Joanna Penn even ask trusted members of their email list to review their work before it’s published.
These beta readers can provide you with frank and free feedback you can use to improve your writing before sending it to your editor.
4. Trust Yourself
If you’re going to become a better writer, you need to have confidence in your ideas and your work.
No, I’m not suggesting you confront your editor with ‘publish my work as is or else.
Instead, have the courage of your convictions.
If you disagree with editorial suggestions, make a case for why you wrote things one way and not the other.
Explain calmly how your arguments, points or ideas make the piece in question stronger.
Your editor may disagree, but sometimes they use back and forth conversations to see what a writer is made of, and to test if their ideas hold up before they are exposed to the world.
If your editor points out an obvious mistake, correct it, but don’t let this become a reason for compromising on your entire work.
After all, you’re a professional.
5. Learn from Your Mistakes
When I was a freelance journalist, I didn’t write down the lessons I learned from my editors.
This was one of my biggest mistakes because I ended up having the same ‘frank conversations’ with several different editors over the years i.e. I repeated my mistakes.
Today, I keep notes of everything I learn about writing. I include positive and negative feedback about my work. I also write about the process of writing the piece in question.
This only takes a few minutes each week, but helps me internalise what I learnt from my editors.
Later on, if I’m writing something similar, I can re-read these lessons and avoid repeating my mistakes.
6. Accept It and Move On
So your work sucked.
So your book wasn’t any good.
So nobody like your article.
I don’t mean to be harsh.
If you’re anything like me or the writers I’ve met, you’ll have far more failures to your name and unpublished disasters on your computer than successes.
Instead of wallowing in self-defeat, salvage what you can, and use the experience as a lesson to fail forward.
Wondering if you’ve got what it takes, blaming your editor, and suffering from a martyr complex won’t help you write a better article next time.
It certainly didn’t help me.
This Is Your Chance
Today, I don’t write about technology because I’m more passionate about writing, creativity and great stories.
However, because of my past mistakes, I try to see editorial feedback as a valuable tool I can use to improve my work.
When an editor asks for many edits and rewrites, think of it as a chance to improve your craft and learn from a more experienced person.
All you have to do it is to act on their advice.