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On editing the work of other writers

A man typing on a laptop computer, maybe even editing something

A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me if I’d help edit the book he’d been writing. I jumped at the chance.

Why? Mainly because I’m interested in the story he’s telling in the book. Partly because it’s been a while since I’d edited something that long and I wanted to see if I still had the right editing chops.

It took me a little while to get back up to speed, but I did the job. And I (re)learned a few things about editing the work of other writers, regardless of how long that work is. I’d like to share those lessons with you.

You need to be thorough. Make at least two editing passes. Maybe even three.

The first pass is a close read. It gives you an idea what the weak areas are and how you’ll approach editing the manuscript.

The second pass is when you go in depth and do the actual work of editing. This is when you’ll make suggestions and recommendations about what to change and how to change it. You’ll point out problems with the passive, with the flow of the manuscript, with its structure.

A third pass is optional, but I often recommend it. That’s where you can go back and clean up any editing or pick up on something you missed in the other passes. Yes, that can happen.

Take notes while doing the first editing pass. Make those notes as detailed as you need them to be. Those notes will help you pinpoint areas you need to focus on while doing your second and third editing passes. You can also note any areas where the structure of the manuscript is weak or needs tweaking.

If I’m editing on screen, I make those notes in either a note-taking tool or in a paper notebook. If, on the other hand, I’m editing with pen and paper, I’ll make notes on (or on the back of) each page.

Be tough, but fair. While I was editing my friend’s book, I sometimes found it hard to step into editor mode because I was enjoying the book. You have to make that step, no matter how big, into editor mode. You have no other option.

You’re not doing the writer any favours by being lenient. You’re there to help them improve what they’ve written. On the other hand, you don’t need to be overly brutal with your criticism.

You need to point out where the writer needs to trim or beef up the manuscript. You need to point out where something doesn’t work or doesn’t add to the narrative. You need to point out where to tighten the writing or to clarify a point.

Don’t just point all that out. You should 1) explain why you’re making the suggestion, and 2) offer advice or solutions. Just don’t go rewriting the manuscript for the author. It’s their book and how the writer chooses to do the reworking is up to them.

Don’t impose your style on the writer. Just because you wouldn’t do something in the same way the writer would doesn’t make their approach wrong. Their approach is just different.

We all have different writing styles. We all have different voices. We all have different visions for what we write. There’s no need to get the writer to adopt your style or voice or tone. Just make your suggestions without, as I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, rewriting the manuscript yourself.

(A quick aside: while I was editing my friend’s book, I could tell he’d read my writing. He seemed to have unconsciously picked up little elements of my style. It was kind of flattering …)

Send regular updates. This is important when editing a longer piece of writing. I sent my friend what I called interim memos that updated where I was in the editing process, that pointed out areas of the book that needed work, and offered a few ideas that I thought could help.

Those updates are mainly for the writer’s peace of mind. To reassure him or her that you are on the case. But updates are also useful to get the writer to start thinking about bigger issues with their manuscript and to start planning how to tweak or fix those issues.

Editing the work of another writer can be a challenge. It involves a lot of effort and an eye for detail. If, however, you can help improve that writer’s manuscript then the effort and focus you expend is worth it.

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