The Most Helpful Ways to Edit Someone’s Writing

If you thought revising your own writing was hard, try editing someone else’s words! Critiquing another writer’s chapter or manuscript is my least favorite writing job. Back when I was hiring bloggers to write posts for my Quips and Tips blogs, I was forced to edit their articles. Never again. I swore I would never edit someone else’s writing again…unless, of course, I’m banned from blogging or freelancing and WalMart isn’t hiring greeters. Then maybe I’ll start looking for an editing job.

My problem with editing wasn’t the reaction of the bloggers when I edited their posts (I’ve heard that some writers aren’t open to editorial changes or feedback). I just found editing to be time consuming, frustrating, and boring. That’s how I learned I’m born to write; I’d much rather be writing than editing. I can barely stand to edit my own writing, which is why you’ll spot typos and grammatical errors in my posts. I have the bad habit of editing as I write; I rarely return to the beginning of my blog post and edit it fresh. But, I did learn a lot about editing someone else’s work during my stint of hiring writers.

How do you edit another writer’s work? Your feedback is welcome below! I tried to include all the best editing tips here, but probably missed a few.

The most important tip is never to attack the writer’s writing skills, plot, story arc, characterization – unless the writer asks for specific, critical feedback. Before you edit, you and the writer must agree on the type of editing, how specific to be, and how much feedback to give. When I was writing Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back, for example, I asked a friend to edit the manuscript before I wrote my final draft (yes, I edited my Growing Forward manuscript several times before submitting it to the editor at the publishing house! Writing a book for publication is much different than writing blog posts). I neglected to tell my friend that I didn’t need a copy edit; I just needed her to make sure my spiritual insights and suggestions were sound. Luckily, we figured out what type of editing I was looking for after she returned the first chapter to me.

Here’s what T.S. Eliot – the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature – said about editing: “An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.”

How to Edit a Writer’s Chapter or Book Manuscript

Finding the balance between honesty and kindness is tough when you’re editing someone else’s work. You want to help improve the writer’s work and skills, yet you don’t want to destroy her confidence or crush her writing dreams. Tread lightly; what is kind to you may be crushing to the writer.

Some of the following editing tips are from Get to the Point! Painless Advice for Writing Memos, Letters and Emails Your Colleagues and Clients Will Understand. by Elizabeth Danziger. It’s one of those helpful writing resources you should keep handy – it’s perfect for when you’re waiting for your coffee to percolate or your husband to finish shopping for his suspenders.

Onwards, fellow scribes….

Be wordy when giving feedback to writers (surprise!)

This is a fascinating tip for editors because it’s the exact opposite of good writing. Good writers get to the point quickly; they omit needless words. And yet this editor encourages writers to use additional words when editing another writer’s work. I think this “padding” softens the blow.

“The extra words dull the impact of your message and therefore make the message easier to hear,” writes Elizabeth Danziger in Get to the Point! “If you want a person to absorb your criticism and learn from it, allow him to retain his dignity and self-respect.”

Ask what the writer needs and wants

Don’t follow the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have done unto you”) when you’re the editor. Why? Because how you’d like to be edited isn’t necessarily how the writer wants to be edited. Here’s an easy fix: ask the writer what specific type of editorial feedback you should give. 

If the writer says, “I just want to get my book published, help me make it better!” you have two choices. First, you can say you’re not a literary agent or an editor at a publishing house; you have no idea what the publisher is looking for. Or, you can ask the writer to give you two or three specific things to edit: flow, grammar, characterization, plot, theme, spelling, consistency, flashbacks, metaphors, the physical format of the manuscript, etc. This will help you see what type of editorial feedback to give.

Take your time. Don’t rush through the edit

Offering editorial feedback that is helpful and positive takes time. If this is the first time you’ve edited someone else’s writing, be honest about your lack of experience. Tell the writer you don’t know much about editing. If you don’t write much or blog at all, tell the writer that your writing skills aren’t polished or professional. And then give yourself time to think and reflect when you’re reading the chapter or manuscript with an editorial eye. Don’t rush through it.

If you want to take this editing job super seriously, find websites where you can see editing in action. One of the best ways to learn how to edit is to witness experienced editors offering feedback to writers. This doesn’t even have to be in person or live. You can look at a previously edited chapter or manuscript online, see how editors edit, and adopt their methods in your own work.

Know the audience and purpose of the writing

What is the point of the blog post, article, chapter, manuscript? Who is the writer’s audience? You’ll edit the memoir of a 90 year old famous author differently than a fundraising speech for a nonprofit organization. Editing another writer’s work is easier when you know what the story arc and theme is.

Offer specific editing feedback

Stay focused on what the writer wants from you. For instance, if the writer asked for help crafting an introduction that hooks readers, offer specific feedback on how the first few sentences affected you. If the writer needs help writing SEO-friendly blog posts, focus on search engine optimization. Note that search engine optimization is a specialized skill that requires training and research.

An example of specific editorial feedback is the famous “show, don’t tell” writing tip. The writer should be showing you as the reader the important subtext of the stories. Writers show through actions, dialogue, consequences, et cetera. Telling (or describing too many things) is passive and boring; showing is active and interesting.

Make sure your editing tips aren’t personal

“If your goal is to have the other person become a more effective writer, focus on the writing, not on the writer,” says Danziger in Get to the Point! For example, instead of directly saying “You should use an active voice more often, you use the passive far too much!” say something like “Writers try to use the active voice more often than the passive voice. There are several examples of passive voice in your writing, such as….”

If you don’t know anything about editing, consider writing a two or three page journal entry. Edit it! This will show you the difference between editing and writing, which will help you say unbiased and objective when you’re giving someone writing feedback.

Learn the difference between writing style and writing errors

Many years ago when I asked a fellow writer to edit my ebook about making money blogging, he kept pointing out “errors.” Then he’d catch himself and say “Oh, but that’s just your writing style.” This confused and irritated me. I wasn’t sure if he was offering editorial feedback or subtly criticizing my voice. If you want to edit someone’s writing in a helpful, constructive way, recognize the difference between a writer’s voice and grammatical errors.

Read What is Writer’s Voice? The Key to Writing a Good Story.

Helpful Ways to Edit Someones Writing
How to Edit a Writer’s Writing

Wrap up your editorial feedback on a positive note

“Even if the person did a terrible job at writing, you can compliment the effort and time that went into the attempt,” writes Danziger. “Find something good to say!” Even the worst piece of writing took time, thought, and creativity. Honor that in your fellow writers – especially if you know how hard writing can be.

I was once told that good writers are doomed to hate their own work. They always see ways to improve every word, sentence, and paragraph they write. A book is never finished – and neither is an article or blog post! It’s definitely never quite good enough. So, when you give the writer editorial feedback, reassure them that no writer ever feels good enough. It’s part of the pain of writing 🙂

Need some editorial direction to get you started? Read 19 Editing Tips From a Senior Editor at MSN.com.

Your thoughts – big or little, edited or raw – are welcome below.

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7 thoughts on “The Most Helpful Ways to Edit Someone’s Writing”

  1. Thanks for this post. I was a horrible editor once. But for the last few years I’ve been a freelance editor by necessity. Learning to edit has made me a far better writer.

    Here’s some things that have helped me.

    1. I read the Chicago Manual cover to cover—twice. And I enjoyed it. Learn to fall in love with grammar.

    2. I read aloud, and slowly, using a piece a paper to block out everything but one line at a time.

    3. I use the voice function on my word processor to read aloud to me and follow along on the screen, making edits as I go.

    I’m sure there are many more tricks to be shared. Happy editing!

    Eddie the Editor

  2. Thanks for that – sadly we seem to be hitting our heads against brick walls sometimes when trying to tell writers that GOOD editing is essential.

    Found this quote yesterday: “Only bad writers think their book is really good”

    So true!

    and I roared with laughter at myself the other day. Happened to look in one of my books, opened a page at random … “He dropped his feet to the floor” I thought my character was limping a bit lately LOl (see, even experienced authors make boo-boos! My editor laughed too, can’t think how she missed it!)
    Not quite as bad as “his eyes roamed round the room” or “his eyes rested on her breasts.”

    Thanks Laurie!
    Helen

  3. In the past year, I’ve read, analyzed, and critiqued about 1.3 million words worth of fiction from my clients (yes, being a stats geek, I keep track of everything). In that sample, maybe two manuscripts came to me with clean writing that flowed smoothly. Four or five were in the painfully-bad category.

    The rest, more than 20, were in that big lump in the middle. Rough, but salvageable. All those writers need to do is set those manuscripts aside for a while, spend some quality time building up their skills, then go take another pass over their stories.

    I agree that good writers are doomed to hate their own work. That’s a natural consequence of what good writers do: continually improve their skills. We may be proud of our own work, but we’re doomed to hate it just the same.

    I came to the same conclusion recently while looking over proofs of a novel I’ve got coming out this summer. I’m better now than I was then. And as I looked over the proofs, I couldn’t help but see the myriad places where, in my eyes, the writing sucks. I know I could write it so much better now. I wrote it the best I could at the time I wrote it, but after another three and a half years of skill-building, I can now see all the problems I couldn’t see then.

    It kills me that I can’t call the publisher and say “Wait, please! Give me a month to line edit the crap out of it! Trust me, it needs it!”

    So if you hate your old work because you think it sucks, take that as a very good sign. It means you’re a better writer than you used to be.

  4. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for your comments!

    I think receiving a critique or editing of your writing is much more difficult at the beginning of your writing career. Once you get used to other writers (and non-writers) tearing your work apart, it gets easier 🙂

    My main complaint with people who edit my work is that they’re not tough enough. I might have to start hiring an editor to whip my words into shape!

  5. I remember having my very first technical writing job edited by a colleague some 15 years ago now. It was incredibly disheartening to see the amount of red pen on the pages. As it turned out, this was this particular person’s speciality, making the novice feel bad.
    He didn’t provide any real explanation of his mark-up and liked to ensure that his writing style was imposed on a piece that was supposed to be devoid of style.
    Needless to say I took it all very personally at the time, but you live and learn.

  6. If you’re doing a big edit rather than a casual glance, ask for the full design:
    – Elevator speech
    – Back blurb
    – Full design notes of them, concept, plot structure, beat sheet, et. al.
    – Medium and full sysnopis
    – Perhaps the character notes

    If the writer doesn’t have them, it might be a reasonable idea to have them do it. If the ms is at the editing stage (at least according to the author), they’ll need to be there anyway to be commercially viable.

    With these “extras” you might have a better chance of returning a meaningful edit since both you and the writer are operating from the same basic criteria.

    Check the link if you wish; there’s a blog post on Artists and Critics.

  7. Excellent advice! I do a lot of critiquing – as opposed to editing – and this all still applies. I will refer to it often to improve my work.