How to Write: Editing someone else’s work

If you write (or if you enjoy reading!), you might be asked at some point to look over someone else’s work. You might be asked what you think of it, and – if it’s unpublished – to give some feedback. This is usually known as alpha or beta reading, or critique.

So if you’ve agreed to read someone else’s work – whether a short story, a section, a chapter or a full novel – what should you be thinking about? There are three main parts; expectations, critique, and feedback.

  1. Check the author’s expectations

First thing – before you even look at the manuscript – is to check what the author actually wants. Checking at this stage can save a lot of work and heartache later on!

What do they want from you?

Writers might not necessarily tell you directly, so ask a few questions; there’s no point wasting time and energy on something that won’t be useful to the writer. What is their major concern with the piece? Do they want every flaw pointed out, or just major plot issues highlighted? Or do they consider the manuscript finished, and want you to do a final read before sending it to a publisher?

What’s their time frame?

Do they need it back in a week, several months, a year? Do they have an aim in mind – for example, an open submission period? Have they got other work to be getting on with, or are they likely to get impatient and bug you about the work even if they’ve said several months is ok? And, most importantly, can you do what they’re asking (ie. read a novel) in that timeframe?

Are you sure you want to take this on?

It’s not a nice point to have to put in, but every editor has come across writers who are very hard to work with at one time or another. You’ll need to judge for yourself, but how soft is the writer’s ego? How precious is this manuscript to them? If you’re concerned about reading for any reason, or you’re concerned about the friendship or the writer’s reaction to your critique, now is the time to bow out gracefully.

2. The critique

So, over to the manuscript. It’s up to you how you want to note things; some people do word documents, notes on a print-out, comments on the document. Ask what’s going to be easiest for the writer, and then compromise if necessary with what’s going to be easiest for you.

But what are you looking for?

High Level

Does the plot make sense? Are there gaping holes? Are there any side plots that maybe aren’t needed? Are there side plots that could be expanded? Is the main plot easy to follow?

Do the characters work? Is anyone inconsistent in their actions? Is anyone a cardboard cut-out and needs more depth? Does anyone need less depth?

What’s good? Which bits made you laugh, made you turn the page, made you smile, made you scream? What bits make you want to shake the author and tell them you can’t possibly kill X character! Are they going to get together? They did get together! This, to me, is as important as the flaws. I mark what I enjoyed, the moments of emotion and of page-turning; they’re what the book does well.

Overall, does the book make sense? Does it read well? Is the story told? Do you want to keep reading, and enjoy what you read?

Mid Level

Can chapters move around? Does anything need to be inserted? Do we need more detail on that specific place or action or character? Can something be amended to make it clearer? If the protagonist sacrificed something here, would that make a later action more understandable? If this small incident didn’t happen, would it make a difference?

This is usually the word-count point as well; if the manuscript needs to be cut at all, it tends to be sections and paragraphs that go.

Low Level

Change that sentence. Amend that paragraph. You’re just making no sense here. Shorten this. It’s the nitty-gritty detail of the writing itself, and what would polish it. This is the time-consuming bit, and you do have to have the right mind for it.

Very often your personal strength will be in one of these levels, rather than all three, and once you figure out what your strength is, it’s worth advertising that fact!

3. Feedback.

And then the difficult bit, and where diplomacy comes in! One of the things to bear in mind is how experienced the writer is. If they’ve published previously, or had feedback previously, then they’re more likely to be ok with harsh critique. If they’ve never had feedback, or it’s only their second critique, be more gentle.

Feedback is very much a skill that’s learned and takes practise on the part of editors, and is as critical as the skill of taking feedback for writers.

  • Finding a balance between harsh and easy is hard. There’s a good middle ground between reassuring someone that their book is great when it could use some work, and making them think it’s awful and try to quit writing. It can be hard to get the balance but it is possible.
  • Be constructive. Your aim is always to help the writer. If you don’t like something, say why. If you don’t think something works, try to suggest what would. Be wary of inserting your own individual style in (there’s always a line here between what you’d do and what the author would do), but don’t ever just say “I hate this” and leave it hanging – that really doesn’t help!
  • You cannot force the writer to change anything. You are only an adviser, and when you send feedback you have to let it go. It is then in the author’s hands as to what feedback they want to take or reject, and what they want to change.
  • You are allowed to reject projects. You are allowed to step away: someone else’s work is not your responsibility. You can often recommend professionals; there are multiple editing services out there that will provide a neutral and honest opinion on writing, and sometimes it’s better coming from someone other than a friend.
  • There is sometimes a level of band-aid tearing. If a book needs work, sometimes the author needs to be told this as bluntly as possible. However, this might mean they never speak to you again…but on the other side, if they don’t know what needs to change, they can’t fix it. This one’s your call!

Giving feedback and critique can be incredibly rewarding; after all, it’s what editors spend a lot of time doing! A second – or third, or fourth – pair of eyes can often be incredibly helpful in seeing what to change or amend or strengthen, and the “Oh! Of course!” moment as a writer is one of the things that makes the hobby (or job) worthwhile. For all that it can be hard and difficult, being able to help someone else make their book better is always worth doing.

Plus, you get to read and have input into a lot of excellent stories!

Green Sky & Sparks

by Kate Coe


Find yourself transported to a different world. The author really draws you in with her descriptions. I felt as though I could picture the whole landscape.
Sara Ellis
Kate Coe
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