Editors are expensive. It’s a painful truth for writers who are trying to get their work to a publisher while working a less enjoyable job in the meantime to pay the bills. That’s why so many writers choose to exchange their work with others in similar situations. I mean, if you can write, you can edit, no? No. But you can provide a decent service if you make an effort.
So, as an editor, I want to share some tips about how to edit a piece of someone else’s fiction without coming off like a loathsome toad.
Tip One: Learn how to use Track Changes in Microsoft Word. This one little function will help your edits to look professional, and any suggestions or changes you make are much easier to implement this way. You’ll be doing a world of good for both yourself and the writer.
Another tip with Track Changes is to take advantage of both the inline editing feature as well as comments. Fix errors and so on inline, and leave suggestions or encouragement in the comments.
Tip Two: Red doesn’t have to mean “bad”. Not all of the red markup that an author sees needs to be negative. Make note of specifically strong passages or unexpected cliffhangers. Tell them where the dialogue is working and where they described something perfectly. This helps to show the writer that you paid attention to the whole story instead of only focusing on what wasn’t working.
Tip Three: Only provide helpful insight. If you don’t have a suggestion as to how something could be fixed, or you can’t quite figure out what is working, leave it. You are there to be helpful, not to provide useless feedback. If something is really rubbing you the wrong way, but you can’t figure out why, mark it and come back to it later. But don’t hand it over until you can explain what isn’t working and why. How is a writer supposed to fix an issue if the reader can’t tell them what is wrong?
Tip Four: Pick your battles. This is not your story, it belongs to someone else. Take your personal opinion out of the mix and substitute a good helping of understanding. If you prefer serial commas and the author doesn’t, don’t feel like you need to explain why they are superior or start putting them in every list of three or more items.
However, if you feel very strongly that a character would not react a certain way, that’s an example of when you can feel free to make a note of it.
Tip Five: Make a style sheet and ask the author style questions before you start. If you don’t know what a style sheet is, you should probably do a little research.
Essentially, it’s a document where you keep a list of proper spellings, grammar and punctuation choices, and writing rules specific to the manuscript you are reviewing. Before you make one, ask the author how to spell all of the character names correctly, if they prefer to spell out numbers, and so on.
Watching for these things will help you to edit not only the story and the bare minimum when it comes to errors, but more technical issues that would get picked out by editors and publishers.
Tip Six: Before handing over the manuscript with all of your edits, write a letter about your thoughts in general. Start with a paragraph or two that includes what you enjoyed the most about the manuscript. This could include things like: dialogue, descriptions, character interactions, setting, etc.
Use another paragraph to briefly list the most common high-level things that you picked out that could use work, like common misspellings, poor syntax, or poor transitions between chapters.
Tip Seven: Be open to scheduling a conversation about your edits. It can be hard to want to dedicate more of your time, for free, to going over edits, so limit it to a one or two hour conversation with the writer. This should be after they have had a chance to review your suggestions and write up a list of questions about any of your thoughts.
In this meeting (in-person, over the phone, online, wherever) reiterate what they did well and offer to look over any changes they have made based on your suggestions. Be kind and courteous, while still holding your ground about anything that you felt strongly about.
Never forget that the work isn’t your own, and that even though you have made suggestions, you shouldn’t assume that any or all of them will be incorporated into the final version.
The most important part of editing like a boss is knowing how to balance both criticism and encouragement in a way that is helpful, clear, and consistent. Take time to review your edits, to ensure that they make sense and provide value before sending anything away, and be open to discussing what you had to say. When in doubt, think about how you would feel if the tables were turned.
Do you exchange work with other writers? Have you come away satisfied, or feeling like it wasn’t worth it?
I’ll be on Facebook until next time.