Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


January 21, 2011

Nonviolent editing: Delivering editorial criticism with tact

One of the challenges of editing is to point out faults, or possible faults, in a manuscript without crushing the author’s ego or making them want to send you a turd in the mail. Here are some thoughts from some articles I read recently.

Delivering criticism that the author will listen to

Emphasize that you are only speaking for yourself

Andrew 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. Referring to someone else’s guidelines can seem attractive because it distances you 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 required 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 cause

In 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 the protagonist was a very unlikeable character,” in which case the writer may say “I meant to do that!” you say, “I found myself wanting the protagonist to fail because they were not very likeable.” The writer is less likely to say that was their intent. Looking for the consequence of the supposed fault also helps the editor go beyond enforcing rules for the sake of rules.

Nonviolent communication

Critique.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 editing

So 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 consideration

Editorial 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 judgmental pronouncements.

If you’re using track changes, show the writer the untracked version first

One 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 they look at that version first. Once the writer sees that the writing is still their own, they’ll be in a better frame of mind to look at the individual edits.

If it’s only a suggestion, write a comment rather than making the change

When editing with track changes, you have practically unlimited room to write queries. Of course it’s overkill to comment every time you change a spelling to conform to the house style, but comments are great for warnings and suggestions. If you’re not absolutely sure that the author is using the wrong word, write a comment. Highlighting the word “mistress” and writing a comment (“To my mind, ‘mistress’ carries connotations of a certain type of relationship . . .”) and finishing with a suggestion (“Would ‘girlfriend’ be a better description of Fred’s relationship with Penny?”) explains your reasoning and gives the writer the choice between graciously accepting your suggestion or saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”


  1. Anything that oils the wheels of communication is good, and editors need tact by the barrel.
    Didn't Disraeli say that when communicating with Queen Victoria he resorted to flattery, laid on with a trowel? Tact is a more sincere and less manipulative technique.

    However, when an editor wishes to point out something that is definitely wrong, and it's not just the editor's opinion, it can be difficult to get that across to a research-averse novice writer without appealing to another source or reference. Something stronger may be required.

    To humbly say (ooh, I split an infinitive and never felt it) 'This is just my suggestion; you're paying, you're the boss' leaves both writer and editor open to criticism if the writer chooses to ignore it.

    But that's where the author-editor relationship comes into its own. A sense of humour is priceless if the editor chooses to ignore the hunch that warns, without the benefit of references, that this will be one stroppy client.

    I do agree that all those red marks from tracked changes are intimidating and don't get you off to a good start. Your client sees red.

    Even if you close the file showing the 'Final' version, the recipient may find that it opens on the tracked changes version.

    I have read that this varies according to the version of Word being used, but one way to prevent track-change trauma is to make a copy of the edited file, then accept your tracked changes and delete all comments. Then save it and send it, with the unedited original for comparison.

  2. Newbie question. Might it be helpful to switch the color of track changes from red to a less fear-eliciting color?

    1. Yes, definitely a good idea. I'd prefer to send my changes tracked as a neutral blue or a happy green instead of a reproachful red, but I'm not sure I have a choice. I always use the track changes option to let the software assign the colours because I think that's the only way (in Word 2008) to have different colours for different reviewers. But maybe when I'm the only person making changes to the document I can manually set the colour.

    2. Oh, I see. I'm sorry, I failed to entertain the idea that multiple reviewers might be involved. Honestly, before commenting, I was ignorant as to how hard-coded the colors were under the default "By Authors" setting. But yeah, you're right -- you have no choice.

      A shame, that this MS Word has become the world's standard word processing software -- and thus, standard editor's tool -- because I don't think it has improved since the late 90s. And it wasn't that good in the late 90s. Ah well. Serenity now.