Unless you’ve managed to keep it a secret, the people closest to you know that you use writing as a tool of expression. Maybe you specialize in poetry, original stories, or articles for niche websites, but the bottom line is you know how to write. You know all the rules to follow and how to break them, and you know how to edit your own work.
If that’s the case, then a friend of yours will inevitably ask you this question: “Can you look over my writing for me?”
In the beat of silence that passes, your brain is probably scrambling through a series of assessments to determine your answer (I won’t lie; I’ve panicked in my head about this situation before). How well do you know this friend? Can they take constructive criticism, or are they a sensitive soul? Will being critical about something this personal damage your friendship? Will they resent you for saying no? How serious are they about their own writing? And if you do say yes, how should you go about doing it?
I have edited content for many friends before, and they were all remarkably different people and writers. I’ve seen everything from fanfiction to creative nonfiction to academic essays, and, through it all, I have learned that being an editor means being flexible in both how you edit and how you approach the writers with your changes. Adding the friendship factor definitely complicates things, but it can be done, and both editor and writer can navigate the process with grace and symbiosis.
The key lies in identifying which of the following five types of writers your friend is either before you start editing or very early on in the process:
1. The First Drafter
This writer will appear super earnest. They’ve written something they’re excited about, and they’re not the strongest writer, but please, oh please, can you help them with grammar and mechanics? They can take care of the rest. Except they don’t. They hand you the first draft of whatever they’ve written, and expect you to take care of everything else.
Which, if you’ve ever seen anyone’s first draft, you know just how much “everything else” can add up to be.
I helped my First Drafter friend for a little while. I went into Teacher Mode, where every edit I made came with a clear and thorough explanation of why it was made and what rules were applied to the change. Since they were a weaker writer with a good idea, I figured that teaching them things to watch out for in the future would lead them to writing better drafts. And for some people, such tutelage may eventually pan out, if the writer is actually willing to learn.
In my case, it was the exact opposite. I could have talked to a wall and gotten better results for all the effort I was putting in. Instead, I received first draft after first draft—just the writer’s rawest, least refined thoughts—and they only seemed to be getting worse. Soon, it became evident that they were just using me to be their free editor, with no great willingness to hone their craft themselves.
Eventually, I stopped caring, and they stopped sending me things.
2. The Secret Writer
If this friend comes to you about their writing, be honored. You’re one of the few that’s ever seen this person’s work in the flesh, and they clearly trust you enough to approach it honestly, with as much fervor and respect as they have for it.
As a result, this means you have to be delicate about your edits. The Secret Writer hasn’t shown off their writing—not necessarily because it isn’t any good, although it may not be—but because they’re self-conscious about it. Their writing is personal and carries a lot of weight in how they view themselves and the world around them, so any judgment on the writing is a judgment on them.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be honest with them, or be afraid to correct them. Just be mindful of how you come across. This is a great opportunity to build up a writer’s confidence and show them what they do extremely well while giving them tips on how to improve.
Try to do as many edits as you can in person, so you and the writer can read each other’s body language, answer questions, and clear up misunderstandings in real time. If that’s not possible, then make sure your online edits are thorough, honest, and encouraging.
Make it clear that communication is an open channel between writer and editor; the writer is allowed to challenge the editor and vice versa, and both should be willing to bend or compromise when it counts. Arrogance isn’t this writer’s problem, so there’s no need to be harsh or overly critical. That particular hurdle comes with our next writer.
3. The Oscar Wilde
Author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde is rumored to have said, “I cannot choose one hundred best books, because I have only written five.” Whether he actually said this or not is debatable, but it certainly sounds like the witty, endearing arrogance that Wilde is most famous for, and it is this indomitable self-assurance that gives our third type of writer its name.
This writer is the shit. Their writing is the shit. And they know it. They boast about it. Their fingers are made of gold, their thoughts encrusted with diamonds, and anything they write is God’s gift to the universe.
And that may very well be the case. I’ve had plenty of friends whose writing I have adored, that was perfect beyond some minor typos and errors and maybe a bit of vagueness and developmental issues. The problem occurs when the writer isn’t humble about it. Their pride can’t accept that they may have done anything wrong, and any attempts to correct them will probably result in a shouting match and someone storming off.
As an editor, it’s frustrating to see a writer have this mindset, particularly when it’s clear that they’re not perfect and their writing needs some fine tuning in order to be the best it can be (or worse when the writing is actually terrible). Professionally, you’ll run into writers like this all the time, who will fight you over every little thing. Fight them back. It’s worth it so long as you can get that final product out to the public looking its best.
In the case of this person being your friend, though, it’s better to pass on editing their work. It’s not worth the strain on the friendship, and neither party will gain anything positive.
4. The Philosopher
This friend’s writing is too smart for you, and hell, it might be too smart for them. You have no idea, because of how complicated and intricate it is, dealing with a subject you have no knowledge about.
So maybe you can’t help them with big edits like development, fact checking, or research. You just don’t have access to the knowledge or materials you would need, but you can help them with the minor things like grammar, punctuation, formatting, and sourcing.
If you do decide to help this friend, make your limits as an editor clear to them and what they can expect from you. Stress that your edits aren’t the be-all and end-all to making their writing publishable. They will need to find a peer in their field or subject matter to go back through and double check their arguments.
Furthermore, if they intend for their ideas to be expressed in layman’s terms, or in writing that the general public can read and understand, then you can still be a good judge of their work. Make notes where you’re confused or need further clarification or definition about a process.
5. The Self-Improver
This will be the most enjoyable editing experience you ever have, especially when it involves your friends. I can attest to this, because I’m currently a part of a writing circle of friends who constantly send each other past works for edits, because we want them to be publishable someday, and we want to constantly improve and build each other up.
The ongoing need for improvement is what separates this writer from the rest. This friend is already confident in their writing, but they also know that it’s flawed. They know that it needs more eyes and hands involved than just their own to make it something special, and they are willing to submit themselves to constructive, even harsh, criticism to get it. They can separate themselves from their writing and observe it clinically.
With this writer, you can be completely honest, because nothing is taken personally. (Just don’t confuse being honest, sometimes coldly so, to being mean; the former builds while the latter only seeks to destroy.)
They also care about their writing, a lot. And seeing a writer honestly care about what they write makes editing it that much more rewarding, because you’re both working together to create something. With friends, this can forge new bonds, trust, respect, and understanding. Not to mention, you get to brag on each other, and who doesn’t love spreading the love?
Make Your Choice
The question has been posed: are you willing to edit your friend’s writing for them?
Whether you accept the challenge or not, spare feelings when you can and communicate as honestly as possible with them from the get-go. In addition to your earlier assessments, are there other concerns you need to address with the writer before the editing process begins? For instance, do you expect to be paid for your edits? Is this a one-time deal, an ongoing partnership, or something casual? What are both of your limitations, and can you each work around them or in spite of them? Can this be something that benefits and nourishes both of you?
Whatever type of writer your friend is or proves to be, whatever style or niche they write in, no matter how good of a writer they are, always, always assess what you both can gain from it and, more importantly, what you both could lose. If your edits are going to result in hurt feelings and ruined friendships, then it’s not worth it for you to waste that effort; they need to hire or find someone they don’t have personal ties with to look over their writing.
If you can work together, though, it can lead to beautiful things. You won’t know unless you talk to them about it and give it a sincere try.
Have you worked with friends before, professionally or on personal projects? How did that work out and what challenges did you face?
Photo Credit: Helloquence