How to Edit


“Artistry is important. Skill, hard work, rewriting, editing, and careful, careful craft: All of these are necessary. These are what separate the beginners from experienced artists.” –Sarah Kay

Most likely, any writer also has a bit of editor in them. If not, they’re probably not particularly good writers. Good writing is good rewriting. Even if you think you’re not a rewriter, the painstakingly long process you take to write two sentences is just your brain doing the rewriting for you before it’s physically manifest.

But for today, I don’t want to talk about self-editing. I want to talk about editing other writers’ work. It’s very conceivable you will have to do this, even if you’re not by profession an editor. It will often be disguised in phrases like “feedback” and “critique group” and “your honest opinion.”

As writers, we’re told to let other people (who are not our grandmother) critique our work. So what do you do when you turn out to be other people?

Rule #1:

The Titanic Clause

The Titanic Clause is not a real thing. I totally made it up. What it means is: don’t nitpick a first draft. When the Titanic is going down, don’t rearrange the deck chairs.

First drafts tend to have big holes and general structure problems. The writer might end up deleting the entire paragraph you’re marking up for incorrect comma usage, so that kind of help is not really useful. They also might rewrite the entire chapter—provided they receive good direction from readers like you instead of comments like: “The passive voice in this sentence is really awkward. Please change.”

So give them overarching feedback and criticism, like, “Hey, next time, try and avoid that iceberg, eh?”

Rule #2:

Don’t prescribe

You are not a doctor, so don’t be handing out prescriptive fixes to what ails the piece of writing. Unless they ask. I say this, because sometimes I ask for it. Generally, even though you think it’s helpful, it’s actually more stifling and discouraging to say, “You should do this, and do that, and write it this way.” What you want to give are reactions, pinpointing particular problems. Instead of saying, “MAKE THIS CHARACTER SAY THIS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE CHAPTER,” you will say, “So, I was confused at this part. This is why I was confused.” And then they can think of their own solution to cure your confusion.

As a side note, this rule changes somewhat if you’re a professional editor. In that case, you are hired to provide creative solutions (even if the author won’t listen to you).

Rule #3:

Be nice

Don’t think of yourself as an editor. Think of yourself as an editorial therapist. You are nurturing the creative genius of the person you’re helping, not stuffing them with your own self-inflated opinion. Obviously, you don’t want to be the kind of person who just super loves everything and doesn’t offer help. But there’s always something worthwhile to find in a manuscript.

My first creative writing class ever, as a freshman in college, I handed in the first chapter of a little story called Once Upon a Nightmare for critique. It was awful. I look back on it, and I know. It was awful. But I didn’t know that. And while I did receive a lot of helpful hints on how to make it better, I also received encouragement. Sometimes I think that if I’d become aware at that point of how far I had to go and how truly terrible I was, I might have stopped.

An editor should help make a piece of writing better. But they should also be a cheerleader—the Sam to their Frodo, carrying them up the mountain, even though you can’t do the writing yourself.

Rule #4:

Separate your personal preference and your editor eye

Each of us, as writer/editor combos, have own personal style and our personal taste in good literature. It’s important not to impose that on someone else, inadvertently squashing their style that someone else might adore.

For example, I once edited a medieval romance novel. At one point, the narrator described the hero for about a paragraph, going into detail of his breeches, his shoulder length hair, the shine of his knight’s doublet . . . etc., etc. Gag. I hate all that stuff. And I hate when authors spend inordinate time on wardrobe details.

But. I know that readers of this genre expect that sort of thing. They want it. They’re disappointed if it’s not there. This is the kind of style this book is. So I left it in, and further let myself be persuaded on a few other points, because I knew it was just personal preference.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly—even if you’re working for free, even if this first chapter stinks like your grandmother’s socks, give each thing you agree to look at with proper attention and respect.

And then, yay! Everything you touch turns to gold!

Don’t feel bad, but probably not. Editing is a real skill that can take years to perfect. But if you follow these recommendations, you’ll greatly improve whatever you’re working on. You have done your best, which is all anyone can really ask. Not to mention, one of the best ways to improve your own skills is to edit other people’s work (after editing so many repetitious dialogue tags, I can now spot them in my own writing like a blaring siren). Good luck!

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