When someone asks you to read their work in progress, it is an honor. Or at least it should be. You are dipping into a very personal pool of vulnerability and depth. We cannot see how deep it goes from the surface, only when we are within it, can we scoot our toes along the sandy bottom and discover the hidden crevices and secret places where treasure is hidden. Most of us who are asked to beta read, edit, or simply read and review, are writers ourselves. Who better to understand the struggle? The pain? The splintering of self that writing often requires of us?
Well, there seems to be two schools of thought on reading, much less editing, a fellow writer’s work:
1) Coddle, support, and lift up, even if the work isn’t very good – after all, we all started somewhere and you don’t want to strike down someone who’s still learning.
2) Brutal honesty. You need a thick skin to make it in this industry and if you can’t deal with criticism from a fellow writer, how are you going to deal with agents and vicious editors?
I will argue there is a middle ground and it is one that can be found in smaller writing communities and in healthy writing critique groups. Constructive criticism is not something that is particularly lauded in our society, but some of us will have had exposure to this in college. By then it is too late for some, who have already developed a concrete idea of what “giving feedback” means.
What editing and critiquing really needs more of these days, is love.
Now hold on, I can see you bristling on the other side of this screen. I am not an advocate of the first approach I mentioned—that isn’t love, that’s fear. A fear of being called the bad guy, a fear of being responsible for hurting someone’s feelings, and a fear that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about (often true for those who haven’t been published yet) so how do you have the right to tell anyone else how to go about it?
The answer is, you edit lovingly.
How do we edit with love in mind? Yes, let us remember the fledgling places we all came from and how fragile our sense of writer self was during those days. Let us remember what helped us and what hurt us – then let us remember what made us better. Everyone is different, some people do thrive on cutthroat criticism, determined to prove them wrong, but most of us thrive on a different sort, a middle place of compassion, encouragement, and suggestion. Because none of us are experts. Not even Stephen King or one of the "Big Five" Editors. No one gets a badge of “unquestionable authority.” Especially not when it comes to art.
I have some suggestions for those coming into writing communities or for those interested in how their critique skills measure up according to ME, unknown person on the internet. I will share my suggestions based upon what worked for me, and what I believe has directly contributed to my upcoming success with “Trans Liberty Riot Brigade” being published this summer.
I will do a post every week on the different elements I encourage when we “Edit with Love.”
FIRST AND FOREMOST: By reading and providing feedback, you wield great power. “With great power comes great responsibility” and this is especially true with editing. You have the power to inspire or crush, to determine whether someone continues or scraps an entire project. We want to believe that no one is so fragile, but we all have been there – those crushing moments of self-doubt that call into question everything we thought we might be good at.