Last week I updated my post on how to edit your own novel, and since you may need to be dishing edits out in addition to receiving them, today I’ll update my previous posts on how to edit someone else’s novel.
I’ll get into the ins and outs of how to go about this, but let’s start with the most important principle: Your job is not to tell someone how you would have written the book.
Your goal is to help someone achieve their own vision, not to impose your own. Set aside your ego as much as possible and strive to help the writer get to the place they want to be.
Here’s the basic process for editing someone else’s book:
- Understand the writer’s goals
- Get in sync on the scope
- Gut check your authority
- Identify problem areas and resist prescribing solutions
- Tailor your feedback to the appropriate level
- Strike the right tone
Understand the writer’s goals
Before you start editing someone’s work, get a sense of what the writer is looking for. They might just want praise or encouragement, or they may sincerely be looking for some nitty gritty feedback.
Particularly if you have some experience in the world of books, it’s also helpful to understand their goals more broadly. Are they planning to pursue traditional publishing or are they planning to go straight to self-publishing? Is this a passion project that they just wanted to get on the page or is this something they’re hoping will have commercial appeal?
It’s ultimately up to authors to chart the course that aligns with their goals, and if you’re editing their work, it’s really helpful to have a sense of that. If they’re dead-set on traditional publishing there are market realities to consider that you can reflect back to them, but if they’re just planning on self-publishing their book come what may, your approach to editing might take that into account.
Get in sync on the scope of the edit
The scope of edits vary greatly. Some are extremely in depth, some are more high level gut checks. You can mix and match these as appropriate, but the essential components of a manuscript edit are:
- Margin notes within the manuscript: These used to be post-it notes within a printed out manuscript, but typically these are now highlighted margin notes within Microsoft Word or an equivalent program. They can range from questions, pointing out problems, highlighting strengths, or suggesting cuts.
- Line edits: Suggested changes to the prose to improve pacing, eliminate redundancies, rewordings, etc. Leave these by turning on the track changes function so the writer can accept or reject the changes.
- An editorial letter: A one to ten page (or more) letter that synthesizes your feedback at a high level, both positive and negative. These are typically grouped into key categories like perspective, protagonist’s motivations, setting, etc.
- A post-edit conversation: I strongly believe in the importance of an actual conversation to talk through the feedback to help resolve confusion and misunderstandings and to make sure the feedback came across as intended.
If the writer just wants high level feedback, a read through and conversation may suffice. Otherwise, you might be providing all of the above. It’s helpful to agree in advance on what you’re going to provide so you’re not overwhelming the writer and investing more time than you need to.
Gut check your authority
No matter how much experience you have within the world of books, you are one person with one viewpoint, and I really believe it is important to be humble about your opinions. Anyone who has read unpublished manuscripts knows (or at least should know) how difficult it is to identify the ones that are going to become hits and which ones are going to misfire.
It’s particularly important to be humble if you don’t have a significant breadth of experience within the industry, even if you are an author who has achieved some success on your own. Going through the process as an author gives you an up close view into one success story, but there are many, many different ways of going about the publishing process and it’s crucial not to overweigh one path.
Your viewpoint will definitely have value to the author, just try not to let your ego get in the way and consider your “editing gaze” as best you can, particularly if you are editing a writer from a marginalized background.
The more you can focus on what the author is trying to do, the more helpful you’re going to be to them.
Identify problem areas and resist prescribing solutions
It’s very fun to read someone’s novel and suggest your own ideas for improving it, but it’s not usually very helpful to an author.
As a variously worded quote usually attributed to Neil Gaiman goes, when readers point out something is wrong, they’re almost always right. When they point out ideas for how it can be fixed, they’re almost always wrong.
Writers are best equipped to identify the right fixes. It’s fine to give the writer some illustrative ideas for fixing a problem to help them directionally understand your feedback, but start by identifying the problem. My revision checklist is a good place to start to help identify the areas you can look for as potential problem areas.
Also, point out the things the author did well too! Typically the bulk of edits will focus on what’s wrong and not what’s right as that’s what’s ultimately the most helpful, but pointing out things you liked will help the writer lean into their strengths in the revision.
Tailor your feedback to the appropriate level
It’s impossible to cover every single teeny tiny reaction you have to a manuscript, and doing so would be overwhelming to an author.
Instead, prioritize your feedback. Start with the big picture and tailor your feedback to the right level.
If there are big picture issues (disorienting perspective, an inactive protagonist, lack of conflict), focus there.
If those elements are in place but there are medium-scope issues like subplot that’s aimless or confusing exposition, focus there.
If everything is working on the act level, you can focus on individual chapters. And if all the essential events feel right, you can focus more on the line and paragraph level.
Essentially: It’s not really that helpful to point out tiny little things in a particular chapter if the whole act is going to get tossed in a rewrite. Try to calibrate your feedback to the highest level that needs fixing.
Strike the right tone
I used to be an unfailingly polite editor who would tone police myself within an inch of my own life, but the more I edit, the less helpful I ultimately believe that to be.
Now? I try to be as direct as possible.
I don’t want to lead anyone astray with undue praise and undue criticism. If I’m softening my criticism, I could leave people with a mistaken impression of the severity of the problem. If I’m overly harsh, I might unduly discourage writers. So now I just try to be clear.
As authors know when they work with me, this can make for a bracing editing experience, but once authors have acclimated to the shock of the feedback (and as an author I know it’s a shock no matter how nicely it’s delivered), it’s most helpful to just have accurate feedback to work with rather than needing to shake off the sugar coating to glean the underlying substance.
You’ll need to calibrate based on what you’re comfortable with, and I would probably edit a loved one differently than a client. But do give some thought to the tone you want to strike.
Enjoy and learn from the editing process
Editing someone’s work can be a richly valuable experience, and I’ve learned an immense amount about writing from having to articulate to authors why something isn’t working.
Go forth with humbleness, remember your mission to help an author achieve their vision, and enjoy it!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: André Devambez – La lecture
Raymond Walker says
I am with all the way on this Nathan, spot on. All good advice. Thirty plus years a magazine editor. The only thing I may do differently is on point four. If I felt the book or story is great just “missing” something I would sometimes suggest solutions. But only with certain writers.
Great piece. Thanks.