Editing Others’ Writing

A while ago, I talked a bit about what I want from people reading my writing, which is mostly just a vast amount of incredibly detailed opinions. Over the past week or two, I’ve been trying to apply this to my own reviews of other people’s work in giving feedback for the entries to the Creative Writing Society’s upcoming anthology.

I’m not going to lie: it’s not easy. At first I felt very awkward giving feedback to my peers – some of whom I knew personally, and some of whom were older and therefore more experienced in both life and (presumably) in writing than me. I felt like I was in no position to comment on anything they’d written; I felt like I’d arbitrarily given myself authority to criticise them just because I was on the committee, even though of course my writing is no better than any of theirs. So I made sure that everyone knew I wasn’t trying to tell them what to do, and they could ignore all my opinions if they wanted. Reminding myself that I was just giving an outside perspective also helped. But even once I’d gotten that out the way, I still had misgivings. In trying to be constructive I often felt like I was just insulting their work, and I spent most of my time staring out the window trying to work out how to word something nicely, or whether it was worth mentioning at all.

The more I edited, though, the easier it got. I’ve given feedback on nine pieces now, and I suppose you could say I’ve worked out a bit of a system. First, I’ll do a casual read-through, often at a time when I’m not planning to actually sit down and give any feedback yet. At this point, I’m reading the piece mostly out of curiosity, and for enjoyment. I won’t think about it that much, I’ll just read it. Often, I don’t find much to criticise at this stage; everything seems fine.

When I come back to it, I give it another read through, being more critical this time but not making any comments yet. After that, I’ll read it through as many times as I think I need to, annotating specific details, and making any more general comments in the email to which I attach the annotated document to send back to the writer.

There are a few things I make sure to look for and point out in both my annotations and general comments. The first thing is the good points. If there’s a line or a paragraph or a word choice I particularly like, I let the writer know, and I try to tell them why I like it, too. In my general comments, I always start on a positive, too. This, I feel, not only balances out the review but also encourages them; nothing better than a nice compliment on your work to make you want to improve it even further. It also lets the writer know what not to change as well as what to change.

Secondly, I consider the theme or the take-home message of the piece. For the writer, this is mostly in their head; no matter what they put on the page, they know what they’re trying to say, even if the two would not seem related to an outsider. That is, their overall meaning can get lost in winding sentences and trying to make this line rhyme with that line. So as well as looking at specifics I make sure to look at the overall piece to see whether its structure makes sense, whether the point of the piece is clear, and whether every part fits with this. I feel like giving a piece a clear theme or message gives it direction, which just makes it much more rewarding – not to mention easier – to read.

In pieces which have characters (some, like the essays and the poems, do not have characters), I make sure to look at them in great detail and outline for the writer how I perceive each character so they can check whether the character is coming across how they intend them to. For one piece, this meant going back through the piece an extra five times, looking at a different character each time.

To my relief, I’ve heard only good things from the writers who have got back to me after receiving my feedback so far. The next step I’ve suggested is for us all to swap our second drafts to get multiple viewpoints on them, then hopefully they’ll be ready for printing!

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