Honest But Kind
One of the very first clients who hired me to edit her novel-length manuscript sent me an email before she forwarded her prose to me. "Be honest," she wrote, "but kind. Be kindly honest."
Her words touched me deeply and reminded me of just how much courage it requires to send a little piece of your soul to a stranger for a critique. It's been years–no, decades–since I wrote my first (unpublished) novel. I still remember pouring my heart into it, as first-time novelists often do. I trembled at the thought of someone reading those words and finding them inadequate or, worse, shallow and laughable.
Had I received harsh or mocking criticism back then, I might have stopped writing altogether. Luckily, even the editors who declined my work offered only constructive criticism. Their encouragement gave me the nerve to keep putting words on the page. As I kept at it, my writing improved. I also grew a much thicker skin.
Still, as a freelance editor, I wince when a badly-written manuscript makes its way across my desk. My clients are paying me to be honest and catch the mistakes and weaknesses in their writing, but I do believe kindness matters as well. So, what do I do when I have to return a manuscript covered in more blue pencil than black ink?
First, I always send the client an email, thanking her for trusting me to read and edit her manuscript. Next, I highlight the things she did right. Even the worst manuscripts have at least one strong point, whether it's solid character development or a beautiful description of a sunset.
Only then do I turn my attention to the problems. I briefly review any errors that appeared repeatedly, and I offer suggestions that will help strengthen the work. I again thank the client for working with me, and encourage her to call me with any questions about the work I've done. Only then do I hit the send key.
I've only had a few clients take offense at tactfully worded suggestions. Most accept my edits with good grace. One client actually emailed me a few months after I edited her manuscript. She said she wanted to thank me for stopping her from self-publishing "crap." She also wanted me to take a look at her second manuscript which, I'm delighted to say, was much better written.
Another client who wanted to publish his novel online said he wasn't sure how to fix the problems I'd identified and paid me to ghost write the piece from scratch.
I can't imagine either of these positive outcomes if my attitude towards my clients had been "snarky" or mocking. Because I was able to provide feedback that was both honest and kind, I ended up with repeat business and a couple of nice referrals instead of merely a one-time editing job.