Have 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 beta reader, taking on a whole completed manuscript.
- 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:
- The protagonist has a great character arc.
- There are some brilliant descriptive passages.
- A particular line made you laugh out loud (in a good way).
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.”
- “You’re overdoing the dialect.”
- “Your characters are spending quite a lot of time thinking rather than doing.”
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:
- C.S. Lakin’s Checklist for Critiquing a Novel: A great list of “big picture” issues to check.
- Grammar Girl’s Editing Checklist: A detailed list of things to watch out for when line editing.
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.