Using Tact to Critique a Manuscript

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How do you deliver criticism of a client’s work?

It’s an integral part of the work of editing, but it makes many editors anxious—especially when they’re not sure how the client will respond. Here is what PEN member Janet Bridgland had to say about her personal strategy.

When commenting on a problematic manuscript, I approach the task from the mindset of critiquing, or providing constructive criticism, rather than criticizing. The emphasis should be on “constructive.”

It’s helpful to begin by citing the overall strengths of the work and giving a specific example or two (e.g., “One thing I particularly liked about the manuscript was . . .” or “I thought the author showed deftness/insight in handling . . .”). Once an engaging tone has been established, the weak points or problem areas can be addressed; I may soften their delivery by framing them as my opinions rather than as categorical assertions:

  • “In my view . . .”
  • “The author would be more effective if . . .”
  • “A recurring problem I found was . . .”

I end on an upbeat note, acknowledging the effort the author has put into the manuscript (e.g., “This is a complex subject” or “Clearly the author has much to contribute on this topic”) and state that I hope the author will find these comments helpful.

If appropriate, I encourage the author to contact me with any questions or concerns, reinforcing that this is a dialogue. If the review is for an intermediary and I am certain the comments will not be returned to the author verbatim, I can be more forthright.

In all cases, it’s important to respect the author’s feelings. Imagine being on the receiving end of the critique: how can my comments help inspire and guide the author to improve the manuscript?

Janet Bridgland

Janet Bridgland is an independent consultant specializing in heritage preservation. She edits manuscripts for the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, and other clients and is managing editor of the triennial conference proceedings of the International Council of Museums, Committee for Conservation.

This article originally appeared in Networking News, the Professional Editors Network’s members-only newsletter. Join PEN today to get the newsletter in your inbox every month—plus access to our archive of past issues.