In her essay collection Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes about the distinction between criticism and “counter-criticism” and how the two approaches influence art and artist.
Where the purpose of criticism is to define and name, the purpose of counter-criticism is to explore and discover. These two concepts are a perfect articulation of the difference between a bad editor and a good editor when they give feedback on a developing manuscript.
When a bad editor gives feedback, they pin ideas down, halting further conversation. When a good editor gives feedback, they operate from inquiry and partnership to support the writing to become the best version of itself.
A bad editor’s feedback can squash motivation; a good editor helps it grow.
As a writer, you will encounter both types of editor in your literary travels. When you are looking for an editor to help you further develop your manuscript, ask yourself: which type of feedback would I prefer?
“Literary criticism and academic scholarship desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.”
When Is Criticism Positive?
There is a need for criticism in many domains. For example, without definitions for concepts, we have no way to exchange ideas.
(Imagine the scene in the classroom: “According to Karl Marx, that thing where we buy and sell stuff is bad for the people.”)
But when it comes to art, and Solnit’s definition of “counter-criticism” is employed, you see the delicious workings of progress and evolution. It is:
“[…] a kind of criticism that does not “pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.”
(Tell me you didn’t get a shiver. What writer wouldn’t want that?)
Isn’t Criticism a Necessary Rite of Passage for a Writer?
All writers have either experienced first-hand or heard about an editor or a writing teacher who made them or a fellow writer cry during a critique of their writing.
Every MFA program has their “famed one,” and it’s the thing that’s whispered about with excitement and tremulousness in the halls when students choose their courses. These are the people who keep us fearful, and many writers erroneously believe that fear is a necessary factor for keeping them on their game.
There’s also the inevitable peer reader in a workshop or writing group who sees it as their duty to rake a writer’s fledgling manuscript over the coals. This kind of behaviour is more common than not, not only because the reader believes in this as a rite of passage, but so too does the writer.
From then on, upon hearing the word “critique” or “criticism,” writers, conditioned to know what’s to come, wince.
Yet, while they’re bracing themselves, many simultaneously continue to ask their peers to give them “brutally honest feedback” on their work, believing this is in their work’s best interests. In fact, that kind of end-stop feedback is exactly the opposite.
“Earlier this year, I took a writing workshop where one of the chief rules was no negative or even constructively critical feedback. This was odd to me, as I’ve always enjoyed constructive feedback and felt it improved my writing. But I went with the new method, and the effect was nothing short of transformational. It felt like magic: as if by one wave of a wand, my writers block was gone.”
Lauren D. Woods, “The Case Against Critical Feedback“
An Editor’s Feedback in the Form of Judgment Harms Art and Artist
As I say in “Why You don’t Want Your Editor to Like Your Writing”:
It’s about matching energies: You’ve spent immense effort and time creating an intricate literary environment, braiding together many strands of writing craft, doing research, and putting yourself on the line. A judgment, even a glowing one, in effect distills all of that complexity into a simple item, like a shortbread or boxy IKEA end table.
This is why when you ask friends and family their thoughts on your developing manuscript, lacking the requisite skills to help you further your craft, they will likely judge the work.
The problem is even positive judgements can stop progress. Hearing “It’s so good!” or “Your story is funny!” may feel nice for a minute, but when that minute is over, you’re left feeling kind of … empty. (Well, now what?)
Tempting though it is to show our work to friends and family, a writer should instead seek out peer readers or editors. But they should be careful to seek out only those who understand and embrace counter-criticism.
Any editor who issues judgments or who seeks to name or define isn’t helping the writing or the writer and can harm a writer’s enthusiasm for furthering their work.
The reason a writer would ask for feedback in the first place is to get help with seeing their ideas from a new perspective, an assistive one, and to get suggestions for how they can improve upon what’s there, not to hear whether the work is good or not or whether the editor likes it.
Even on our best days when things are flowing, writing is challenging (we all know that old nugget from Gene Fowler who said, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”)
And then there’s Steven Pressfield in The War of Art who says:
“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”
On one hand, lighten up, man! On the other, he’s not entirely wrong.
So when things do get difficult, the reprieve we need should come from our fellow writers, peer readers, and trusted editors.
These are the people who have the potential to lift and deliver us into beauty, purpose, and joy for having written and having strived to make meaning out of the world we’re in.
The secret is finding those peers and editors, because when we do, we arrive at something akin to balance.
How a Good Editor Gives Feedback
Ultimately, all writers need a good editor who helps the writer explore their next steps and gives feedback designed to open doors to new pathways, more doors, and the delicious unknown.
When a good editor gives feedback, they enter into the writer’s work with grace and inquiry. This enables them to go underneath the writer’s intentions and examine the work from within.
From this interior vantage point, they can see the building blocks the writer has used and suggest how they can capitalize on their strengths and further them to move the work into the clearest, most salient, and energetic version of itself.
A good editor will not decide, determine, or speak in absolutes; instead, they enjoy their privileged position of being able to usher in ideas along with the writer, and use their skill, acumen, and knowledge for the benefit of the writer and ultimately for the art they make.
The purpose of giving feedback is to offer new ways to the writer to go down their designated path so they reach the desired destination.
“All stories have the potential to become great stories.”
A good editor is support staff, cheerleader, and runway lights; they’re oars, detour signs, and gear to get a writer up the mountain. A good editor’s job is to protect the writer, so they write strong and feel good about the work they’re doing. A good editor gives feedback holding all of that in mind.
How Do You Know You Have A Good Editor?
When you’re looking for an editor, talk to them first to make sure you’re aligned not only in what they will do for your work but in how they will do it and in what ways they will help you.
Criticism indeed has its place, but when you are looking for true artistic understanding, empathy, and a desire to help you usher your work into the world, you’ll hear it in how the editor talks about how they support their writers, and to what end they work to counter criticism.
Our editors specialize in exactly the kind of ethos described here and take immense pride in supporting our writers in the exact ways that help you succeed.