Embracing Criticism and Feedback: Using Red Ink (Literal or Figurative) to Improve Writing

Writing a book is a mighty achievement. Not many who start a manuscript ever finish, and not many who finish a manuscript seek help to improve and make the work suitable for publishing. Anyone can write a book, and anyone can publish a book, but what does it take to make one’s writing any good?

Writers need editors. A writer must embrace that fact if they ever want to publish a book that meets professional standards, especially if working on their first book. Once a book is published, it is out there, forever, and it defines the author and begins their brand.

Closer to publishing a book, writers must also consider other professionals in the industry who can help, such as book cover artists and layout designers, but working with an editor (preferably editors, plural) is the first step to publish a book to the best of their ability.

The Many Types of Editors

In one’s book-writing journey, a writer may be involved with any number of editors. There are many types, and all have different specialties:

  • Developmental Editors
  • Structural Editors
  • Revisions Editors
  • Copy Editors

There are more than four types of editing, including line editing, mechanical editing, as well as beta and proofreading, but for self-, independent-, and hybrid-publishing consideration, those are perhaps the most commonly seen, and the lines more often than not blur between editors. A revisions editor, for instance, may assist early on with line editing, or a developmental editor might point out repetitive writing habits to help with structural or revisions editing down the line.

Developmental editors, who sometimes offer substantive or content editing, assist writers anywhere from concept to completed draft. Developmental editing, as the first word in the title defines, helps with overall development of the manuscript, such as pointing out issues with fundamentals, helping to source content, referencing necessary chapter components, suggesting improvements for narrative flow, etc. Developmental editors sometimes even function as a mentor and writing coach.

Structural editors take an overall look at the first draft manuscript upon completion, or near- completion. They sometimes work with writers during developmental editing to offer further guidance, but more from a structural standpoint. Is everything where it should be? Does the narrative flow in terms of style, tone, and overall quality? They look at the core components of future books and provide an analysis.

Revisions editors work with manuscripts that are already completed, turning first (or second) drafts into more well-defined drafts. Revisions is an umbrella statement, of course, since manuscripts go through multiple revisions (or should, even rewrites). But revisions editors, in this case, work with writers to improve writing by way of improving the writing fundamentals: hook, character, plot / conflict, point of view, show vs. tell, dialogue, voice, pace, etc. They point out what works and what doesn’t and offer suggestions while also putting the writer to work collaboratively.

Copy editors should be the final step before a manuscript goes into layout. This includes making minor spelling, grammar, and punctuation corrections, as well as enhancing the writing quality, searching for passive voice, awkward sentence or paragraph structure, and if working on nonfiction they make sure citations are properly formatted, among other things. Once a manuscript goes through copy editing, no further significant changes should be made other than to fix last-minute proofreading errors.

Other types of editors exist, all playing different (or sometimes crossed) roles. A line editor, for instance, goes through the manuscript line-by-line, examining word choice, making sure author / character voice is consistent, pointing out clichés and run-on sentences, and focusing on clarity. A mechanical editor, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the mechanics of the writing, making sure it conforms to style guides, and uses consistent capitalization, punctuation, and abbreviation, which are tasks copy editors sometimes absorb as part of their duties.

That is a lot for a writer to take on if attempting to create a book on their own, and so multiple sets of eyes are always recommended (and should be required) instead of a lone set of eyes.

Editing Is Highly Collaborative

No matter which type of editor (preferably editors, plural) a writer works with along their publishing journey, it should never be assumed the editor(s) will simply fix issues and return a perfect manuscript back to the creator. All editing is highly collaborative and ultimately on the writers’ shoulders.

Developmental and revisions editors, arguably, spend the most time with writers hands-on. Depending on their services, this could be anywhere from eight to sixteen weeks or longer; for structural editors, this could be anywhere from four to eight weeks or longer. In either case, a relationship between writer and editor is established, and during that time the writer needs to put in as much time and effort as the editor, or significantly more.

Working with a structural editor is no different. They are not there to change the manuscript, but to suggest changes to help make the writing better. Are there inconsistencies with the writing compared to the outline? Are there incomplete or missing chapters? Does the manuscript feel complete? They offer a book-level evaluation so the writer can fix such things before going through further revisions.

The least amount of interaction is between writer and copy editor. Since a manuscript draft is considered “final” by the time it reaches them, having passed through the hands of many previous editors, copy editors work on the practical details that do not need much writer interaction, although an interaction is still there, no matter how small.

Yet it is not an editor’s job to simply make changes to a manuscript (except in the copy editing phase, in most cases), but to point out what could be improved so the writer can make those improvements. It is the author’s job, and obligation if they want to be a writer, to put a manuscript through multiple revisions before their work ever becomes a published book.

The goal of every editor is to help writers become better writers. After all, it is not their book; it is the author’s. In fact, editors—although they put in a significant amount of work into manuscripts—are not listed as contributors within books other than seldomly appearing in an acknowledgment page.

Editors have a passion to help writers, which is why they do what they do. They have a need to insist upon the world the highest quality of writing when it comes to published books, otherwise the world would be (and is, unfortunately) inundated with mediocre, unprofessional books.

Hard Work and Dedication

What many novice writers do not expect is the level of hard work they must put into revisions. It takes a significant amount of time to write a first draft manuscript, but it should take significantly more time to put that manuscript through multiple rounds of revisions before ever becoming a book.

Consider a 60,000-word first draft manuscript, completed entirely by the author alone, with no help from any type of editor. Did the manuscript go through an extensive round of self-editing at least? More often than not, this is not the case, since most novice writers are not familiar with self-editing other than basic checks for grammar and spelling. Is this a first draft, second, or third? It all matters how familiar a writer is with the writing, editing, and publishing process, which is extensive.

Let’s say, for the benefit of the writer, the manuscript at least went through a round of self-editing, which means it is a second draft. Then, after collaborating with a developmental editor, they put it through a third. Next, they send it off to a structural editor, who works with them on putting it through a fourth. Then a revisions editor, who helps them put it through a fifth or sixth. Then a beta reader, a copy editor, perhaps a line editor, a proofreader, etc. What draft number is it now?

Some argue there is no such thing as a “final draft,” that a manuscript can go through endless revisions, that at some point a writer must simply be done with the thing and abandon it, either publishing their work or not. But if the writer decides to publish a book and become an author, wouldn’t it make sense to put it through as many drafts as possible and write / revise to the best of their ability?

If this is the case, a writer needs to embrace the red. When editing by hand, many editors use a red pen to note suggested changes, and in word processing programs, edits are typically found as red text. And if the editing is done right (in the case of novice writers), there might be more red text on the page than black, and this can scare a person at first glance.

Embracing the Red

My first experience with an editor was for a 7,500-word short story called “Unstitched Love.” I put it through a weekend writer bootcamp that focused on self-editing because I wanted to learn more about the process and about my writing. One instructor leaned heavily on plot and conflict, another on dialogue and voice, another on point of view and show vs. tell, and the fourth took a line editing approach. When first turning in the story, I thought it was great, and then I received the feedback.

The pages bled with red ink. While “a story is there, somewhere,” I was told, it had conflict but no plot, and I had a lot of dialogue that was unbelievable when spoken aloud, and my point of view was all over the place and hopping between characters, and I was telling more than showing. And from a line editing perspective, if I were to fix each of those items previously mentioned, I needed to cut (according to the blood on the page), at least a third or more of the text.

I was horrified, at first, then I put their suggestions to use. I turned my conflict into story beats and suddenly had a plot. I created believable dialogue that sounded right for each character (instead of all sounding like me). I took the “camera” off the various characters’ shoulders, as it was analogized, and instead put the lens solely through the mind of the main character. From a line editing perspective, I trimmed the manuscript from 7,500 words to 4,000, cutting the story almost in half.

After struggling for years writing alone, and not selling short stories to the markets I was seeking, I suddenly had my first professional manuscript. I sent it out and it instantly sold to a market in Sweden. I then went on to sell that same story to a market in South Africa, twice, and finally published it in the U.S. Without incorporating their feedback, I would have continued struggling as a writer.

Today, I put those same practices to use, and from every new editor I work with—whether for a short story, nonfiction article, poetry collection, or novel—I learn a little more each time, forever improving my writing and editing to the best of my abilities. As an editor myself, I pass on what I have learned over the last twenty-something years to other writers and editors and hope they will do the same.

Not until you embrace the red and incorporate criticism and feedback will your writing improve, which is an investment of the self. The more editors you work with over the years, the better your writing will become, thus needing less and less editing. It hurts, at first, until you realize it is a necessary pain and part of the process of writing successfully.

Michael Bailey is a Senior Editor and the Head of Developmental Editing at Manuscripts, LLC. He is a recipient and nine-time nominee of the Bram Stoker Award, a four-time Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and a multiple recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award, along with over thirty independent publishing accolades. He has written, edited, and published many books. His latest is Righting Writing, a nonfiction narrative about dedication to the craft. He is also the screenwriter for Madness and Writers: The Untold Truth, a creative documentary series about writers. Find him online at nettirw.com, or on social media @nettirw.

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