8 Tips for Editing

8 Tips for Editing Other Writers’ Work (While Remaining Friends)

8 Tips for EditingHave you ever been asked to edit someone else’s work? Do you need tips for editing without ruining friendships? You’re not alone!

If you’re part of a workshop group, or if you have a bunch of writer friends, then you’ll probably find yourself acting as an editor at some point. Perhaps:

  • In a group workshop setting, giving feedback on a draft-in-progress.
  • As a paid editor, carefully reviewing a client’s work.

Your role is a significant one: as the editor, you could well make the difference between a so-so novel and one that really lives up to its full potential.

A bit daunting?

Probably. After all, you not only want to do a good job… you also want the author to still be on speaking terms with you afterwards. You also don’t want to end up spending countless hours perfecting someone else’s prose, at the expense of your own writing.

Top 8 Tips for Editing Someone Else’s Book

Here are eight key tips to have in mind when you’re editing (or thinking about editing) someone else’s work.

#1: Be Careful How Much You Take On

Do you struggle to say “no”? Me too (though I have two small children now, so I’m getting plenty of practice!)

If a friend (or even an acquaintance) asks for your editorial help, it can be really tough to say no. Ultimately, though, if you don’t have the time to help, it’s kinder to say so straight away–rather than taking their manuscript and doing nothing with it for months on end.

Editing can take a surprising amount of time. You might think all you need to do is read the book–which may take you three or four hours–and circle any typos along the way. Chances are, you’ll find that editing a whole book takes a lot longer than just reading it.

When you edit, you need to:

  • Read considerably slower than you normally would.
  • Flick back to check things are consistent (did that character have blue eyes at the start of the book?).
  • Pause to think about whether or not a particular scene, paragraph, sentence, or even word is working.
  • Jot down coherent comments or suggestions as you’re going through.

If you have some time available, but you know you’ll struggle to do a thorough edit, be clear about that up front. Say something like:

I’d love to read your novel! I don’t have time to actually edit it, but I could give you some big picture feedback on things like characterization and plot, if that would be helpful.

Whether you’re editing for free, in an editorial exchange (“you edit my novel, I’ll edit yours”), or for money, it’s a good idea to set a deadline. Ask if the author has a particular date in mind – they might, for instance, want to submit the manuscript for a competition. Obviously, if you can’t realistically get feedback to them before that date, say so.

#2: Check What Stage They’re At With Their Manuscript

When people ask you to edit their novel, find out what stage they’re at. Is this a first draft? (If so, you might want to encourage them to self-edit first, or you could offer to give big-picture feedback on characters and the plot.)

If they’ve already spent a lot of time revising and reworking the novel, then they’re probably not going to be looking for editorial feedback that suggests making sweeping changes–and you’ll want to read and comment accordingly.

Of course, authors might not be quite sure how close to “finished” they are: probably they’re torn between hoping you’ll say, “It’s brilliant, don’t change a word!”–and hoping you’ll be able to fix the nagging issues that, deep down, they’re sure exist.

Important: If you’re not already reasonably familiar with the author and his writing, get a sample of the manuscript before committing yourself. Editing a really poorly written novel is a painful and painstaking experience… you might, instead, suggest the author spends some time workshopping the writing in a small group before getting it edited.

#3: Set Aside Time (But Protect Your Own Writing)

When someone first hands you his novel to edit, you’re probably feeling a mixture of excitement, anticipation, and apprehension. You’re keen to read this great story, you’re flattered he wants your feedback… but you’re also a bit daunted by the task ahead.

The more you put off getting to that manuscript, the more reluctant you’ll be to start. Neither you nor the author will want the editing process to drag on for months.

Set aside regular time for your editing – but protect your own writing time too. That might mean:

  • Doing your writing first, each day, then editing afterwards.
  • Using your best time of day to write, and editing when you’re not feeling very creative.
  • Having set days for writing and set days for editing (if you write/edit full-time, or close to it).
  • Setting an overall time limit for your edit–e.g., two hours a week for a month.

#4: Jot Down Comments as You Read

You might want to read through the whole manuscript before you start digging into detailed edits–that way, you get the whole picture upfront and you don’t start questioning things that get resolved a scene later.

On your initial read-through, however, you may spot things you’ll later forget about. Jot down a quick note about anything to double-check later. Highlight the text on your Kindle, scribble in the margin on a physical copy, or add a comment in Microsoft Word.

On a subsequent reading, you can expand on these comments, and you can look out for more detailed edits or for issues of consistency (like capitalization, or a character’s eyes changing color half way through the manuscript).

#5: Give at Least Some Positive Feedback

As an editor, you’re inevitably drawn to what’s not working in the manuscript: after all, that’s your job! It can be really disheartening to a writer, though, to get a whole string of red-pen edits without any positive comments at all.

Even if the manuscript you’ve just edited is a hot mess of a first draft, there’ll be something positive you can point out. Perhaps:

Don’t assume the author already knows these things are good. Point them out! If you’re giving overall feedback, start off with what’s working well–“this is beautifully plotted, and the pacing is spot-on,” before coming to issues that need to be addressed.

When you come across little things that are working well, pop a comment in the margin (“haha, loved this!” “great word!” “wow–didn’t see this coming but it fits perfectly”). It takes seconds to do this while you’re editing, but it can make a world of difference to the author.

#6: Point Out Recurring Problems

If a particular editorial issue crops up again and again in the author’s manuscript, don’t feel you have to go through and carefully root out every single instance (unless you’re being extremely well paid…).

Usually, it’s enough to spot a trend and comment on it, whether it’s a grammatical or punctuation issue, or something bigger:

  • “You often have the wrong sort of its/it’s– you might want to do a find for ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ to check each one.”
  • “Sometimes, you’ve got a space before and after an ellipsis and sometimes you haven’t: either would be fine, but they need to be consistent throughout.”
  • “Your sentences often start with He / She and then an action. You might want to vary them a bit.”

Sometimes, it will be sensible to highlight several examples of a particular issue to clarify what you’re talking about.

#7: Offer the Author a Chance to Rewrite

If you get part-way through a close/line edit and find there are some serious issues–like a character who just isn’t working, or a plot full of holes–then it might be best to go back to the author and give them the chance to rewrite. (There’s not much point in your perfecting the prose if they’re later going to have to cut out completely.)

It can be really tricky to know how to do this tactfully–and if you’re editing a friend’s work, you’ll probably need to be careful how you phrase things. You could try something along these lines:

I’m enjoying the novel, thanks for the chance to edit it. The characters are fantastic–deep, rich, and compelling. I’ve edited the first three chapters in detail, but I’m increasingly feeling like the plot might not be quite there yet. Do you want me to do a quick appraisal of the whole thing, so you can rework the plot a bit before I edit the rest? I can recommend some great beta readers, too, if you want a second opinion.

#8: Run Through an Editing Checklist

If you’ve edited more than one or two manuscripts, you’ve probably noticed some issues crop up again and again (even if they present themselves slightly differently each time).

It’s worth using a checklist to help you edit smoothly and efficiently, watching out for common problems. You could create your own–especially if you do a lot of editing–or start with these handy ones:

A lot of checklist items will be fairly intuitive as you edit: you’ve already had a ton of experience with stories and grammar, after all (as a reader and as a writer). The checklist can be a great backup, though, to jog your mind or to help you spot why something isn’t working or needs tweaking.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you edited someone else’s writing? How did it go? Do you have any tips for editing for other writers? Tell me in the comments!

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About Ali Luke

Ali Luke blogs about the art, craft and business of writing at Aliventures. You can get her mini-ebooks Time to Write: How to Fit More Writing Into Your Life, Right Now, and The Two-Year Novel: Plan, Write, Edit and Publish Your Novel in 24 Months when you join her weekly e-newsletter list (it’s free!) here.

Comments

  1. I do quite a bit of editing. My publisher is a very small independent who likes to encourage new writers, so he’ll sometime take on a MS with a great story (and that special ‘something’ that has caught his imagination) but which has limitations in the technique.
    I’ve even edited work in English, written by someone whose first language was far removed from my own. It’s an interesting, if long, process.

    To save on costs, the publisher will use a select few of his authors who he trusts to edit other authors’ work.

    We benefit from it by learning from others’ mistakes… and from seeing their good points too. We get credited for services etc. that aren’t a part of our publishing contract, like immediate publishing as paperback, or hardback, rather than waiting to see how the e-book is received… If the e-book then does well enough to qualify for automatically being published as a paperback, the credit gets carried over to the next novel, or some other service. (It’s not a ‘pay to publish’ outfit… he takes the risks on us.)

    One thing that has to be remembered when editing is honesty… but if you say you don’t like something (apart from actual errors of spelling, punctuation, etc.) you must explain why. Is it unreal? Unconvincing? Too complex… or simple? Too long winded?… or maybe it doesn’t explain something clearly enough for an uninformed reader to understand?

    Bear in mind too, the market the book is aimed at, or to be sold in. (Porky the pig may not be such a great children’s hero in Jeddah or Riyadh, for example.)
    There are some subjects, or activities carried out by characters, that are perfectly acceptable in Europe, even unremarkable, but might give many Americans apoplexy… likewise, American readers will find plots plausible, that UK readers would find too far fetched, or just unlikely. (Superheroes, and protagonists with special capabilities or powers can fall into this category.)

    Perceived belief is another of these factors. The intervention of ‘the Almighty’ might be accepted by some readers, but others will consider it at best either fantasy that shouldn’t be in a non fantasy genre, or a cop out because the author couldn’t think of a way out.
    At worst it will be considered as proselytising and thrown aside… with following reviews accusing the book of being nothing more than ‘God bothering’ propaganda. The same thing can be said for political or social stances.

    • Even though I may not like something and have great reasons why, do I ever actually have to *say* I don’t like something? One thing I’ve found is to ask open-ended questions rather than make statements (for example, “If A is like this at the beginning of the story, why does s/he do this thing in the middle of the story?”). If nothing else, it makes the writer justify why s/he did what s/he did. Otherwise, writers can get awfully defensive.

    • Excellent points, Chris, thank you! I agree with you that genre-fit is critically important, and of course market matters too (though this is perhaps slightly tricky if e-publishing worldwide — I suppose it makes sense to aim at the author’s home country as the primary audience, and hope that an international audience is willing to put up with it..!

  2. These are excellent points, Ali. Every writer should read this. The two checklists by Susanne Lakin and Mignon Fogarty are great! Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thanks for all the kind words, Garry! I love checklists — they’re such a good way to make sure you’ve not missed anything (I invariably have…)

  3. Kate Flournoy says:

    This entire post can be summed up in one line: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Funny how that works every time, isn’t it? 😀 You want honest criticism? Give honest criticism. You want to know what you did well? Praise others for what they did well. You want people to be polite and considerate? Be polite and considerate.
    It’s quite simple, actually. Imagine that. 😉

    • I think that’s always a good rule to abide by. 🙂 In fact, I think where you can, it’s great to go slightly further — “do unto others as *they* would have you do unto them”.

      (I appreciate robust criticism — I’m pretty thick-skinned about my writing — but a lot of newer authors might feel more vulnerable and need a real focus on encouragement rather than nit-picking. I try to respect that!)

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        Yes, definitely. It can be hard for me to remember sometimes to be kind as well as frank— I’m pretty thick-skinned too, so I tend to just plow ahead without considering how the poor author will take my bluntness. Thankfully the two major writers I work with currently are both steady-headed, clear-sighted individuals and good friends. 😛
        But I should keep in mind what I was like starting out. It’ll help me be gentler with my honesty. 😉

  4. Step One: From December through February, refuse to respond to any phone calls/emails/texts from acquaintances who want you to critique their NaNoWriMo novels…

  5. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Ali!

  6. Very useful tips! Number 5 is particularly important I think, because writers need to know what we’ve done right as well as what we’ve done wrong. A sea of red ink can be discouraging.

    I have a copy of The Synopsis Treasury: A Landmark Collection of Actual Proposals Submitted to Publishers, which contains the book proposals of various sci-fi / fantasy luminaries. Two that are relevant here are proposals by Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert, because their entries are a series of letters between them and their editors, Frederik Pohl and Damon Knight respectively. The editors content edit / critique via the letters.

    What’s cool is that Pohl and Knight’s edits were like friendly beta reading; advising them to move scenes here or take out ones there, or streamlining X, Y, or Z. Both editors adhered to Ali’s rules 4 and 5 (rewrites were often a given). Knight’s comments are a good model for delivering tactful criticisms while also giving helpful suggestions.

    Whereas, if Pohl didn’t like a given story he just said “I didn’t like it,” reserving critiques for the ones he did like. This ties into rule 5, because if a story is so bad that you can’t say anything good about it then you should probably not critique it at all. I’d probably tell the friend, “This story isn’t up to your usual standards. It needs more marinating,” or something like that.

    However, the exchanges were all very cordial and friendly, even when Heinlein tells Pohl he’s gotta pay him more if he wants stories under the Heinlein brand, as opposed to his lower paying pen names. Heinlein expressed gratitude for having the luxury of avoiding editors who mistreat writers — a reminder of Kate Flournoy’s “Do unto others” rule.

    • I think it’s sometimes easy to assume that authors know what they’re doing well … but as you say, it’s really discouraging just to see lots of red ink. It’s rare that there’s nothing positive that can be said.

      Sometimes, though, a piece of work might not be particularly bad — it may just be something that you as a reader just can’t engage with. (I have, thankfully, never been asked to critique any erotica … I blush at the thought!) It might be appropriate to say something along the lines of “I didn’t like it, but I don’t think I’m in your target audience. Maybe so-and-so could take a look at it for you?”

  7. When I ask for reviews of my own writing, I find the skills people have to critically evaluate writing tend to be shallow. It’s not an easy thing to critique writing (I struggled with evaluating student writing as a high school composition teacher for ten years). A critic has to be well-read in as many different genres as possible and have some knowledge of the theory behind writing. Understanding human nature (and writer nature) also helps, too. Otherwise, the evaluation fails to help guide the writer in at least some next steps. Everybody misses stuff (for example, think about the publishers who passed on the first Harry Potter novel), and checklists can only go so far. It’s the relationship between editor and writer that’s key. How many writers do you know who acknowledge their editors as one of the most important people in their lives?

    • “…the evaluation fails to help guide the writer in at least some next steps”.

      Yes. This. All over the place. And it’s why I don’t let friends edit or critique my work. They can read it and tell me what they think, but they tend to stroke my ego rather than give me anything I can use to make my ms better.

      But, there’s also a flip-side to it– writers who want to be edited and/or critiqued, but who don’t really want to be edited or critiqued out of fear that someone will attack and destroy their baby.

      I refuse to edit and critique because I’ve figured out some writers only want to be validated, praised, and have their writer’s ego stroked. They’re not interested in getting better or exploring the nuances of craft or genre. I’m okay to look over it and give a first impression, usually something along the lines of ‘it’s a good start, but there are issues to sort out; get it finished first’. But, I’m not going through a draft line by line, looking for inconsistencies, genre problems, or issues with craft.

      The only exception to this rule will be those people in my writer’s groups where I’m not the only one editing or critiquing.

      • And I would suppose that even within a writer’s group there are varying degrees of capable editors, too.

        I did find one online critique group that had both amateur and professional writers doing the critiques: Critters Workshop. It was free (unless you wanted to participate in the yearly fund raiser), and I was able to learn a few things about providing useful critiques.

      • Very good points, Steve and Mollie — thanks for adding those. I agree that critiquing is a specific (and advanced) skill, and obviously you’re not going to get the same level of feedback from a non-writer (but avid reader) friend as you’d get from a seasoned pro.

        “But, there’s also a flip-side to it– writers who want to be edited and/or critiqued, but who don’t really want to be edited or critiqued out of fear that someone will attack and destroy their baby.”

        — I’ve seen this occasionally, Mollie, and it’s really destructive to the flow of discussion in writing workshop groups. One of my groups had the very sensible rule that people being critiqued had to shut up and listen to all the critiques were done… and only then could they respond!

        I certainly don’t think all writers SHOULD edit or critique or anything like that — and of course you’re always well within your rights to say “no”!

  8. This was amazing, and I needed to read it so badly! THANK YOU so much!!!

  9. Steve Allen says:

    As a freelance editor, I see a lot of manuscripts in various stages. I mostly specialize in military fiction, ensuring the proper weapon use, weapon jargon, and military term’s correct usage. Many writers are not “gun people” and are unfamiliar with the working of a weapon. I help authors correct mistakes, so that they deliver a better book.

  10. Hi KM,
    This is a very good article. May I repost it on my Indie publishing site: Words Alive Press (the site is under construction at this time). I will give credit to you and also give your website information.
    Thanks,
    Deb Gardner Allard

  11. Ah ho, this is great now I can give much better critiques thank you!

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