How To Edit Someone Else’s Manuscript

You’re a friend, family member, or critique partner of a writer and he or she has handed you their manuscript, their baby, with pleading eyes.  Are you feeling honored right now, or has panic set in?  I’ve been on both sides of this moment, so I know how it feels and I’ve also learned what works and what doesn’t.

So, for the sake of both writer and impromptu editor alike, I thought I might put up a short list of hints that will make you into the best editor you can be.  You know, the kind that will get your name mentioned in the credits when the book is published someday. ;)

-Pens and Handwriting.
Your edits are more likely to be helpful if they are readable.  So, always use a colored pen when making notes and make sure they are legible.  If you’re editing through a computer, take advantage of Microsoft’s “track edits” features or write your notes in a colored font.

There will be typos.  TONS of typos.  Don’t be surprised or act surprised by the title-wave of little errors that catch your eye.  Just start circling!

-Be Specific.
This is the most important part of the job.  Look for all specific things that don’t make sense.  Is there a character whose presence doesn’t make sense because there isn’t enough back story?  Is there a scene you like, but it’s too short.  Is there a scene that feels too long?  Is there enough description of a scene or character?  Is there too much description?  Is there a particular sentence that is poorly worded?  Are facts about the location wrong?  Does the point of view make sense? Focusing on specific points, even sentence by sentence, really makes a difference for the overall story.

-Positive vs. Negative.
If you are doing a serious edit, you are going to have to make some negative comments, but don’t underestimate the power of positive comments as well.  Pointing out a paragraph you think is written well helps the writer understand why the one you didn’t like is wrong.

-Be Timely.
No author should expect you to read their story in a week, but you also shouldn’t hold on to it for months on end.  They are often waiting for you to finish your edit before they go on to the next step.  If something comes up that keeps you from finishing for a little while, let the writer know.  They’ll understand.

Just a few “Don’ts.”
-Don’t be vague.  Speculative comments that refer to an overall concept or to the book in entirety are rarely helpful and usually ending up being thrown out.
-Don’t be mean. Comments like, “This paragraph is stupid,” are not helpful. ;)
-Don’t just say, “It was great,” and nothing else.  That can sometimes be as discouraging as saying, “I didn’t like it.”
-DON’T WORRY!  We really appreciate your help!  And if there is an author out there who is upset by your comments and tries to fight with you, don’t take it personally.  It’s not your fault.  They just aren’t really ready to be edited yet.
…Have I mentioned that we appreciate you? ;)

*Note: I am currently not accepting manuscripts or books to review.  I’d be one of those annoying people
who took a year to get back to you. *

11 thoughts on “How To Edit Someone Else’s Manuscript

  1. Ooh, here are some of my own tips:

    – Always use a green pen. RED is too harsh — it makes the writer feel like their teacher has given them a big, fat F. BLUE and BLACK are too close to the writing ink.
    – When giving negative comments, turn them into practical feedback (opposed to shredding the writer apart on how stupid their writing is).

    1. I love the green pen idea! Blue and black can be difficult to see. And practical feedback is a great way of looking at negative feedback. Editors really do have to point out what is wrong with a story, but the way it is presented can make all the difference in whether it helps the author write a better story.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Very good tips, Emily. Good stuff to remember even when reviewing our own work. And yes, I am thinking you shouldn’t send me any manuscripts right now either. I am not likely to get back to you really quickly! :)

  3. Very helpful and practical. I’ve had a daughter who is good with English (and is majoring in journalism) do some editing for me. I will send this along to her.

    Haven’t visited here in a while. What’s the status on your next book? I plan to have one another one ready for eding in three weeks. That’s the plan, anyway. It has been almost finished for over a year, but I keep adding this, taking this out, and then letting it set for awhile. Know how that is?

    Hope you all had a good Christmas, New Year’s, and are ready for another year of writing. wb

    1. Hi Warren,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. These are just things I know help me a lot when I have someone edit for me. I hope your daughter likes it.

      Actually, the blog post I put up last night is all about my next novel’s progress. In essence, it is so close to being done, but I completely understand what you are talking about. It never seems quite finished. Good luck with yours. I’m really looking forward to reading you next one. :) I’d be interested to know what publishing route you are thinking of too.

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