I recently received rejection email with a staggering amount of feedback (300 words of advice for a 1,000-word piece I submitted). The popular saying in writing circles is that any feedback from editors is good feedback since publishers often send generic rejections.
Let me assure you that this adage is complete bullshit. Not only is it possible to offer garbage feedback, but it also happens far more frequently than we’d like to admit.
First, though, I will acknowledge that editors generally know what their readers want, and they have every right to pass judgment on anything they receive. They must maintain or grow their readership if they want their publication to survive. Second, I know from working at a newspaper that readers are vocal about the things they like and dislike. A lot of this reader feedback passes directly to the editor. Assuming this feedback is collected and analyzed, editors have good reasons for their decisions.
However, editors and their staff are also human and not the adoring fans we want them to be. Occasionally, they react or reject pieces because of personal biases or their underlying beliefs of what constitutes good writing. These biases are often revealed in their comments. When these comments are needlessly abusive, vague, or prescriptive, the feedback does more harm than good.
As a professor who teaches college writing, I often give feedback to my students. Over the years, I’ve assembled the following tips for good feedback:
- Avoid Authoritarianism. Avoid the words “must” or “should.” Good or effective writing is rarely as black and white as we pretend it to be. For example, “Good writing shows rather than tells” . . . but what about if you need to give background information quickly? Do we really need a scene to explain that a character is divorced or suffers from epilepsy? “Good writing avoids adjectives or adverbs” . . . but what if the manner or quantity or characteristic is important? Surely, adverbs and adjectives didn’t enter the language by mistake. Rather than regurgitate rules, recognize that rules can and should be broken to improve the narrative. Instead of living and dying on imaginary hills of prescriptivism, offers suggestions with clear explanations.
- Avoid Vagueness. I realize editors have a limited amount of time, but if they are going to go through the trouble to offer feedback, it should at least be specific. Telling a writer that their tone or style was good is useless feedback. Which phrase was good? By pointing out these gems, writers know what to aim for in the future. Don’t tell us a character was uninteresting. Explain that you’ve seen the character too many times or offer a suggestion for how the character can be more dynamic. Don’t tell us a conclusion was weak. Tell us what you didn’t like about it.
- Reinforce Strengths. It is intimidating for writers to put their work out there for the world to read. Some writers have family members or friends actively sabotaging their attempts to create. Others have the voices of previous writing teachers stuck in their heads, nitpicking every wrong comma or misspelling. We need to guide these writers by acknowledging what they do well. Does a writer have an ear for dialogue? Point it out. Does a writer have some vivid descriptions? Highlight them and tell the writer what you liked.
- Demonstrate Engagement. It is easy to point out what is wrong or right, according to our opinion. It is a little harder to ask a well-crafted question that leads the writer to greater depths. Asking questions tells writers that you have approached their piece as a reader. In other words, your feedback can be a window into how readers respond to a work. Why did the main character do that? What is the main character thinking this point in the story? What would onlookers say if they saw the main character doing this action? All these questions help writers anticipate how a reader might engage in their story and revise with those expectations in mind. More importantly, it shows the writer that you are paying attention and that you are interested in their writing.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it is a good place to start. If you are an editor reading this entry, and I hope you take this advice to heart. As a writer, I tune out feedback that violates one of these guidelines, and more importantly, I avoid markets and editorial staff that I consider snobbish and authoritarian.