How to Edit for a Friend

By Mark Nichol

Many writers seek assistance from friends or family members for various projects, but this aid must be given and received with care. Here are some tips about asking for informal editing assistance and providing it.

Editing for a friend or a family member is easily assumed to be a simple matter, but it requires clear communication about expectations. Different writing projects require various degrees of intervention, from proofreading to content editing to critiquing. (Many posts on DailyWritingTips.com discuss editing issues; search the site for “editing” to locate them.)

Before asking for someone’s help with your resume, for example, it’s best to research formatting options and commit to your resume’s structure, and then perhaps simply ask for proofreading and/or advice about phrasing. Of course, if someone you know is knowledgeable about resumes, welcome more substantial feedback (though not everyone who evaluates resumes for hiring purposes is necessarily a good judge). Contradictory advice about resumes can be counterproductive, causing your confidence to be shaken.

If you look at a friend or family member’s resume, generally, limit the extent of your response to the parameters of the person’s request, at least as far as marking up the document. However, a diplomatic comment about an excessive or minimal employment history, for example, is acceptable even if you’ve merely been asked to check for spelling and punctuation errors.

College-admission essays are all about the applicant’s voice, not about his or her writing skill. Furthermore, an impeccably written essay might hinder rather than help: If the prospective student’s grades and test scores in English are not consistent with the writing caliber demonstrated in the essay, college admissions staff may see a red flag. If you do seek, or offer, assistance with an admission essay, the role should be that of a writing coach, not a ghostwriter (or even an editor). The idea is to help with the structure and depth of the essay, and to coax more vivid imagery and fresher phrasing, rather than rewrite sentences and replace words.

If the document is a substantial work of nonfiction or fiction, agree on what type of assistance is to be given. “Does it work?” is a very different question than “Can you help me with my writing?” It’s not too much to request that someone read your novel and give you some general suggestions, but if you’re going to ask a friend or family member to spend many hours poring over it, commenting on plot, characterization, tone, structure, and the like (and, oh, yeah, correcting poor grammar and usage), you might as well hire the person rather than expect volunteer assistance. At this point, a professional editor will probably be more useful.

Finally, understand that if you ask for editing assistance, expect a thorough housecleaning, not five minutes of dusting and straightening up. Assure your friend or relative that you will accept revisions or critiques with good grace, and honor that commitment.

If you’re helping someone, even if he or she is confident, identify and communicate strengths and be diplomatic about weaknesses. And if the manuscript is substantial, ask for just an excerpt first, rather than the entire work. If the person’s writing skill is poor, it will be easier to simply offer some general comments or to suggest that you don’t feel up to the task. You’re welcome to be frank, of course — at the expense of good relations with your relation.

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3 Responses to “How to Edit for a Friend”

  • Roberta B.

    Touchy subject. Good advice! Over the years, for correspondence involving personal matters (legal, political, job search, family, etc.), my husband and I typically proofread each other’s work. The constant point of debate is the style and proper balance between big picture concepts/defining your point (his perspective) and presentation of the details and facts to support it (my perspective). It’s always a painful, but mostly productive, exercise.

  • Kim Peta

    Great advice! I’m seek advice from my largest critics. If I can please them, or it’s returned without too many red marks, I’m happy. Criticism is essential to great copy.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Roberta B:

    “My husband and I typically proofread each other’s work.”
    This is wonderful how well you have said that it worked out.

    Back in the mid-1960s, my father was in graduate school for his doctorate in education. My mother was a high school English teacher, and an excellent one, and naturally she edited everything in Dad’s doctoral dissertation. Then, not even the “Hard Nuts” on Dad’s graduate committee could find anything in the writing to complain about. My father’s major professor admired his dissertation and he used it as an example to his future students as to how to do it.

    I learned some from listening to them discuss things. E.g. do not use a hyphen after “non” unless the following word is a proper noun. Examples: nonaligned, nonconformist, nonsense, nonverbal, non-Catholic, non-English, non-Jewish, non-Western.

    There is a rich lode of unnecessary hyphens following these prefixes: {anti, arch, bi, counter, hemi, mega, mini, micro, nano, post, pre, sub, super, ultra}
    Consider that today is Friday the 13th, and Fidel Castro was born on Friday the 13th, and Castro has had his continual worries about counterrevolutionaries in this hemisphere. What will ever become of his archenemies?

    Also, North Americans describe a direction as “counterclockwise”, but in the British Isles they insist on “anticlockwise”.

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