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2 November 2020

What can giving feedback teach us about editorial best practice?

At The Literary Consultancy (TLC), we oversee the writing and sending of 500−600 manuscript assessment reports a year. Each manuscript is hand-matched by our team to the editor (or Reader) we feel is most suited to the job, to ensure a ‘best fit’ that will serve the writer. All reports are checked before being sent on by the office. It’s a delicate process, but a hugely enriching one, and one that can be transformative for the writer. To have an editor whose skills and affinities align with the writer and the work giving objective, professional feedback is a gift, and we’re very lucky to have been able to facilitate this process for the last 25 years.

Manuscript assessment – a huge amount of skill

Manuscript assessment isn’t governed by the same rules as copy-editing or proofreading, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t require a huge amount of skill. There’s a great deal we can learn from this process that can be usefully applied to all editorial service provision. Mostly, this comes down to understanding how best to serve both the writer, and the writing.

For our Readers, who are all experienced freelancers with other work either as professional writers, teachers of creative writing in academic institutions, book reviewers or publishing professionals, the feedback process can sometimes feel like it’s happening in a silo. They don’t read each other’s work – we are after all dealing with sensitive information and intellectual property – and so it can be hard to know what’s working well, and to learn from each other.

The same happens in the wider world of freelance editing. Even specific skilled work like copy-editing and proofreading that carry the option of qualifications with organisations like the PTC could have more peer-to-peer learning, to ensure we’re delivering top-notch services that are attentive to the nuances of the landscape and the shifting needs of writers. At TLC we actively partner on research projects with organisations like Kingston University and the Royal Society of Literature (A Room of My Own), to stay up to date with the key issues facing writers today. And we keep a close eye on any trends emerging from our own daily conversations with writers.

Nurturing a strong author-editor relationship

The most important thing is to remember that there is a lot of anxiety when it comes to the writing process. Writers are often dealing with self-doubt, sometimes imposter syndrome, and thinking they have to achieve a certain outcome to have ‘made it’. When they come for feedback, often writers are also looking for validation of their effort. It can be easy to forget this when we are (necessarily) safeguarding ourselves as freelancers, processing incoming jobs and sending out reports and marked-up work as quickly as we can.

The balance is hard to strike, and it’s a lot to ask of a freelancer, especially if you’re a sole trader. That’s why we set up the Being A Writer platform, which focuses on helping writers to cultivate creativity and build resilience, empowering them to develop a toolkit to better navigate an industry that is trying to change, but which still isn’t completely transparent to the average person jotting down ideas in a notebook.

Three key factors for excellent editorial service

It can be good to have some touch points to keep things on track and delivering at the highest possible level. For us, there are three constants to providing an excellent editorial service, and they are based on a solid understanding of:

* What writers say they want;
* What writers actually need; and
* How to navigate the gaps in between.

The advantage of working at consultancy level is this mix of bird’s-eye view (the landscape, the market) with on-the-ground, face-to-face contact with writers (the personal, the holistic). We regularly bring our freelance pool together, previously at our offices but more recently online, in order to share learning and establish best practice that then gets embedded into TLC’s editorial guidelines, which get updated every three years or so. These include our key reading principles, which touch on both editorial points, and how to handle and manage expectations and anxieties. That’s where we come in as a consultancy, too; as a second layer to help make sure this process is as supported as possible, for the writer and for the Reader.

A little TLC goes a long way

There are some things that are consistently true about best editorial practice, and some things that feel newer, around identifying barriers that we might not as an industry have always been attuned to. It’s critical in this environment of hope and rejection, fear and ego, that we understand that what we are doing as editors is so much more than mechanical. We are supporting creative writers’ dreams, bringing them in line with the visions the writers have for them, within the parameters and expectations of an at times brutal market. We could all do with a little more TLC in our lives, I think, and I truly believe that editorial practice is enriched when we remind ourselves of this.

Aki Schilz

Aki Schilz is director of TLC, the UK's first and leading manuscript assessment service.

Follow TLC on Twitter @TLCUK.