Delivering criticism that the author will listen to
Emphasize that you are only speaking for yourselfAndrew Burt, founder and moderator of Critique.org, where writers trade feedback, has a couple of thoughtful articles on how to write a critique so that the author will be most likely to listen to your message. One of his main points is that it’s important to always emphasize that what you’re offering is your opinion and may not be true for everyone. Interestingly, he also recommends against citing authorities. I think I sometimes refer to someone else’s guidelines as a way of distancing myself from the bad news (“Hey, don’t blame me, but so-and-so says you should do this differently”), but unless you’re referring to a set of guidelines that the author is bound to follow, such as a style guide, Burt is probably right when he says it comes across as another way of saying “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”
See “The Diplomatic Critiquer” and “Critiquing the Wild Writer: It’s Not What You Say, but How You Say It”.
Express the effect, not the causeIn The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, “How to Break the News,” Thomas McCormack says, “Always, when citing a fault, first express the effect, not the cause.” So instead of saying, “I felt Pam was a very unlikeable character,” in which case the writer may say “I meant to do that!” you say, “I had trouble getting into the story because I found it hard to sympathize with Pam.” The writer is less likely to say “I meant to alienate the reader!” Looking for the consequence of the supposed fault also helps the editor go beyond enforcing rules for the sake of rules.
Nonviolent communicationCritique.org mentions How to Win Friends and Influence People as a source of ideas on how to communicate effectively, and I think the principles of nonviolent communication also offer some useful techniques for presenting criticism in its most productive form.
Softening the blow when manuscript editingSo far we’ve looked at some ideas about how to offer critiques. What about reducing the shock of getting an edited manuscript back and seeing a red line through every third word?
Remind the writer that your edits are only warnings and suggestions, presented for considerationEditorial Anonymous, in “How to Respond to Copyeditors’ Marks,” suggests to writers that they try to see the edits as warnings and suggestions that help them make informed decisions about how to produce the effects they’re aiming for, and not as judgemental pronouncements.
If you’re using track changes, show the writer the untracked version firstOne of the nice things about editing digital documents is that there are some techniques available for making the writer’s first contact with the edited product a little less upsetting.
As pointed out by the Subversive Copy Editor in her excellent book, you can send the writer one copy of the manuscript with all changes accepted and suggest that she looks at that version first. Once the writer sees that the writing is still her own, she’ll be in a better frame of mind to look at the individual edits.