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03 May 2008 @ 10:55 am

Arguably one of the most important parts of editing is tact. Friendships and partnerships are made and broken, not by what is said, but HOW. As a beta, it is necessary to remember that we should critique, rather than criticize. What’s the difference? A critique is constructive, while criticism tends to be vague, insulting opinion.


Why is tact important?

Tact is important to master for two main reasons. The first and probably most substantial is that tact allows you to give comments in such a way that the author is likely to hear them. Comments that are rough or insulting generally are written off by the author as a personal attack, rather than a true statement about their work. They will then assume that whatever you have to say is worthless and untrue because you are just being mean. If your author does not hear your words, then why go through the trouble of editing in the first place?


The second reason is that it opens the door for communication between you and the author. Phrasing a concern diplomatically facilitates discourse. The author will read your comments, think about them, apply them, and ask questions if they do not understand. Which is what the beta business is all about, no?


I’ve compiled what I feel is a pretty sound list of tried and true ways to say what you mean without being mean. I hope that these help you in your quest to be a better editor. If there is anything you wish to add to the list, please feel free to comment. I am always open to hearing about new tips and tricks to make our jobs easier.


  1. Be polite. Politeness is 99% of tact. What your mother told you was true: if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. It’s hard to take offense to someone who is phrasing things politely.


  1. Try not to begin statements with “you”. Putting the focus of the critique on the problem, rather than the author, will help your author feel less defensive when you have a negative critique to give, because it takes the focus off of their failings as a writer, and puts it on the failings of the writing. Instead, you can begin a statement with “the,” “it,” or “a” to minimize the personal factor. Focus your comments on the problem, rather than the person with the problem.

Bad example: You didn’t describe the setting very well in this paragraph.

Good example: The setting here is a little confusing.

Good example: It would be nice to know more about the setting here.

Good example: A better picture of the setting in this paragraph would be helpful.


 No matter how thick you think your skin is, reading forty pages of negative comments that begin with “you” is likely to make anyone defensive.


  1. Try to avoid statements that sound dictatorial. One of the biggest complaints from authors is that their editor was too forceful. Forceful statements often begin like these:

You should

You have to

You must

You need to

You can’t




The author will often feel as though you are trying to make them write a certain way, i.e. the way YOU write. Many people resent these heavy-handed comments, and are likely to dismiss them, rather than take the advice they contain.


  1. Occasionally remind the author that your comments are a matter of opinion, rather than set rules. This will help you avoid sounding like you are telling your author what to do. No one likes being told what to do, and authors are especially sensitive to that kind of comment. Reminding them that your suggestion is only an opinion, especially if your comment is pretty subjective, will emphasize the fact that you are trying to be helpful, rather than forceful.


  1. Avoid personal comments about the author. Stating that they write like they’re in middle school will not help your argument about their comma usage. They may very well BE in middle school, but your job is to help them, not comment on their age. Stick to critiquing the writing.


  1. Be as specific as possible. It’s easier to take offense to general statements, such as, “your characterization is weak,” than it is to object to specific examples, such as, “I’m not sure that Heero Yuy, being a pretty tough character, is the crying kind. A different reaction might be more true to his character in this instance.”


  1. Offer possible solutions, but be sure to mention that they are only examples, rather than the only solution available. Try not to dictate while doing this (see number 3). You can use words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “possibly” to sound less bossy. Definitely avoid the word “should”.


  1. Don’t forget to offer positive critiques as well. A large part of avoiding insult to your author is to give at least the same amounts of compliments as there are negative critiques. I try to do twice as many. Emphasizing the positive will help the author to feel like there is less work to do, and make them more open to suggestions of how to improve. Try not to blow it out of proportion, though. Again, be as specific as possible.

 I hope that these help you improve your etiting style in a way that benefits you and the people you edit for. Again, if you have any other ideas, please comment.