Over on his blog, the ever-wise Nathan Bransford, author and former literary agent, offers up Ten Commandments for Editing Someone’s Work:
1. Remember that it’s not your book.
2. Find out what the author is looking for before you start editing.
3. You’re not doing anyone favors by being too nice.
4. You’re not doing anyone favors by being a jerk either
5. Pointing out problem areas is far more helpful than offering solutions
6. Try to figure out why something isn’t working for you
7. Just make it work
8. Don’t overdo it
9. Remember that personal taste is personal
10. Be Positive
These are all great points, and you should head over there to see his explanations for each of those points. But after reading through them, I realized there are two points more points that belong on that list, so I’ve amended those 10 commandments and made them 12 instead.
11. Do not edit to make yourself look or feel superior.
11a. Do not talk down to the author.
I’ve seen—and received—critiques from some writers that are basically bash sessions, often with “advice” that makes the writer being critiqued look like an idiot. It’s not your place to tear them down and show them what a crappy writer they are; you are there to help.
This is different than being honest. I tend to be blunt when I edit, so I always go back over my notes and see if I need to soften them a bit, but my intent is never to make the writer cry. I want to point out areas that can use improvement in an open and honest way without being mean about it. Take, for example, these two notes:
“I can’t believe you don’t know what a preposition is! LOL.”
“I noticed that you struggled a bit with prepositions. Here’s a great (and understandable!) explanation from Grammar Girl that I found really helpful: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/ending-prepositions.aspx”
Point out a problem, yes, but do so in a way that will help the writer to correct it in that instance as well as in their writing in general. Check your ego at the door, and don’t let your own self-doubts cause you to go overboard when critiquing to prove to yourself and others that you’re a better writer.
12. Be a coach, but also a cheerleader.
Over the years, I’ve learned that being an editor is 50% critiquing, 25% education,* and 25% cheerleading. Yes, you need to act as coach, sometimes telling them hard truths, but you also need to let them know that they’re not an utter failure for getting their, there, and they’re wrong.
When you’ve finished explaining what they didn’t do well, encourage them and share with them areas that show a lot of promise or positive things that really stood out. And I don’t mean couching criticism in one or two positive notes, e.g., “I really like the character’s name, but . . . ” followed by a bleeding manuscript and no other words of encouragement.
One thing that can be tricky is when a writer says they want something but they don’t understand what that really means. For example, I had a writer ask me to “tear apart” his manuscript, so I did. Not in a mean way, of course, but in a direct and honest manner. What I didn’t realize was that he was a first-time writer who hadn’t even had his manuscript critiqued by friends or family. So when I got the manuscript back to him with my notes, saying that he “flipped out” would be an understatement. He thought I was saying he’s a crap writer who can’t do anything right, when I had intended it as a straightforward and thorough critique, since he was paying me for the service. I realized then that I had to be more gentle as well as a bit more intuitive about what a writer needs from a critique when he might not know it himself.
Since then, I’ve had to talk numerous writers down off the ledge, even when the criticism was offered gently. Writers tend to be emotionally needy when it comes their work; they want it to be better, but it stings when the stark reality of what that entails is shown. I admit I was the same way at first. It’s hard to hear that your masterpiece is more in pieces than mastered.
Basically, be honest but kind. And it helps a lot if you understand going in what they need to hear versus what they want or think they’re ready for.
Any other points that Nathan or I missed? Add them in the comments.
- Grammar Girl is great at explaining difficult concepts in an understandable way.
- The Oatmeal offers some hilarious tutorials on common grammar mistakes. And by hilarious, I mean wet-yourself-laughing-while-actually-learning-something funny. I really wish he’d write a grammar book. It would be my go-to gift for writers. Seriously.
- Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner is perhaps the best book on grammar that I’ve found. It’s funny and engaging, and easily understandable, which I don’t know that has ever been said of a grammar guide before.