A few days ago, I posted some advice on how to edit your own work when you get to that step in the writing process. Editing is, maybe unfortunately for some, one of the more grueling parts of writing, and for a lot of us, we might not have the chance to have someone else help us. On the other hand, there are those of us out there whose primary focus is editing–specifically, editing the work of other writers. There might be a few different reasons why you’ve been put into the position of “editor;” maybe you’re friends with the person who wrote something and you owe them a favor, maybe you’re a beta reader, maybe it is literally your job to edit the work of other people.
Whatever the reason is (and I’ve been in a number of those positions), here are some of my personal guidelines for editing other people’s work.
1. If editing someone else’s academic papers, offer suggestions rather than outright edits.
For one thing, they might know more than you do about the topic they’re writing about. For another, editing can be a teaching process as well, and if you’re doing peer-to-peer editing, it helps to keep in mind that you’re not the one making the argument. If you know there’s a grammar rule being broken, or that there’s clumsy sentence structure, by all means, point it out–but remember, they’re not beholden to follow your edits (just like you might not be beholden to follow theirs).
2. Read the work aloud–twice.
Your initial time reading something, you’re not going to know exactly where the end point is. If you’re editing someone’s novel, it might be easier to not read aloud, but then you run the risk of skimming through the work. The second time you read it, include mentioning the punctuation you see. Familiarize yourself with the text, and ask yourself, “Is there really the need for a comma here?” Like I mentioned in my post about editing your own work, reading aloud makes you pay more attention.
3. Know the purpose of their writing.
Find out why they have written what they did. If it’s an academic or research paper, find out if they’re supposed to be following MLA or APA formatting rules, since the two are vastly different in execution. If possible, ask what their goal was in mind while writing the story–is it supposed to make readers sad, or is it supposed to be uplifting? This can also help you make word choice changes in order to help better get that tone across. Furthermore, if someone’s writing something that’s supposed to be factual, you can point out that they really need to cite their sources–otherwise, it’s just their opinion, and that makes for a weak argument.
4. Aim for consistency.
You’re looking to make the writer as consistent as possible in their style choices. Even if they flip narrators, which is something that happens in prose more and more, make sure those narrative voices are distinct. If they prefer to format 3 a.m. as 3 AM, make sure they do the same thing when it’s 12 PM. Make sure their capitalization and whether or not they use an apostrophe s after names ending with s (for example, “Zeus'” or “Zeus’s”), and if they do it once, make sure they do it again.
5. Talk to the writer, if you can.
This isn’t always an option (trust me–especially on a deadline, you might need to stick to making the decisions yourself), but if you’re in communication with the writer, explain the choices you’ve made as an editor. If there were places that you felt were sticky, explain why it was difficult to read through them. Tell them what you would think as a reader, since that kind of feedback is necessary in order to improve writing. If you’re nice about it, they’ll appreciate the feedback. Which leads me to my final point…
6. Don’t be a jerk.
Nobody’s going to want to work with you if you’re condescending and mean. It’s one thing to do a job efficiently, but another entirely to make people feel bad. If you act as though you’ve never made a spelling error in your life and then you make fun of someone for it, you’re just being unkind.