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Editing and Proofreading Tips for Being Critical and Kind With Friends' Writing

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

How can you be both kind and critical of a friend's writing?

How can you be both kind and critical of a friend's writing?

Your best friend, or maybe a family member, has just completed a book manuscript or blog post. The person asks if you'd be willing to edit, proof or review it, maybe even be a beta reader. Of course, you want to help.

Then you begin to read the "masterpiece" just created. All you can think is, "Oh dear God, this is awful. How am I ever going to tell her how bad it is without hurting her feelings and ruining our relationship?"

In my article, Proofreading Tips: Using Amateur Proofreaders, I discussed how a writer should deal with constructive commentary and critique from friends and family. In the scenario from the opening example here, the situation is flipped. And if you are seen by people as a good writer, you will likely be asked to assist friends with their work, either for free or professionally for a fee.

(Author's Note: I want to thank my friend, FlourishAnyway, in the HubPages writing community for asking for some tips on what to do in this scenario. It was the inspiration for this post!)

What Writer Friends Really Want From You

When a friend comes to you asking for help with editing, proofing or reviewing, they may be looking for an "attaboy" or "attagirl" from someone they like, trust and respect.

They also may be scared to show their work to a professional editor or to the world at large because they may not be that confident in what they've created. So they've asked you, as a friend, to give them a safe place to share and test themselves.

In both cases, the help they seek really isn't for their work. They're asking for your approval, blessing or support in their writing journey. They want to feel good about what they've accomplished but still may have some (or many!) trepidations.

If you're an industry-hardened writing pro, you can relate to where they are. They're somewhat fragile and fearful at this stage. So even the least challenge to their egos can send them spiraling into self-doubt and lashing out.

Here's a perfect example...

Many years ago, I was asked to review a short story that would be classed as romantic fiction. The author was really young and, obviously, had discovered a thesaurus. So in her story, she would use obscure words. My favorite was ungula (I'll leave you to look that one up). Even though I had a pretty extensive vocabulary at that point, I found myself looking up words.

When I called her out on the issue, she said I was just stupid since I didn't know what ungula was. Remember I said how fragile writers can be at this point? Be prepared for it!

What to Do if You Find Yourself Stuck Reviewing a Real Stinker

I’ve been asked by multiple author friends about what to do if a book or manuscript they’re reviewing for a friend or family member really stinks. They’ve gotten cornered into doing it because of their relationship, and felt obligated. Now they’re stuck wondering what to say.

If to dodge the dreaded conversation about how bad the book is, you say you’re really busy right now, they will not let you off the hook. They accept that you’re busy, but they’re also expecting that you will do the review just as soon as you’re not busy. And if you post on social media about fun you’re having on vacation or on the weekends, you know what they’re thinking. “Harrumph, doesn’t look like they’re busy now. Why haven’t they read my book yet? Jerk!”

You could just thank them for sharing their book with you, and you appreciated learning more about them and their work. But the “What did you think?” question will still be there. Was there anything—anything!—you could say about the book that was a positive? This is tricky because you don’t want to provide encouragement for work that shouldn’t be encouraged. But pointing out what you did find good could open a caring discussion about the less good aspects.

Sometimes when you’re arm twisted into reading a friend’s book, it may be a book that’s outside your normal reading or writing. For me, that’s fiction. I never read it (I wait for the movie. Sorry.) But I just can’t offer anything valuable due to my lack of experience with it personally or professionally. In this case, you can say that while you appreciated them sharing their book with you, it’s outside your expertise and can’t really offer any valuable or thoughtful opinion on it. At that point, you could suggest an appropriate editor or other resource which might help put them on the right track.

But the best way to handle these situations is to not get into them at all. Your status as an author doesn’t mean that you are automatically available or interested in reviewing any and all books. While it will be painful in the short term to say no, imagine what it would be like if you don’t. You might tell your friend that it needs work. Then they’ll struggle to change it to meet your approval. Then you’re reviewing it again… and again… often for free.

Just say no.

Setup for Less Upset When Evaluating Friends' Writing

But how can you head off some of the negative impact of your feedback? It's all in the setup.

When someone asks you to edit, proofread or review their written work, here are some steps you can take to help make this a constructive critique for the writer while preserving your existing relationship.

Clarify What's to Be Reviewed

This is the most important step! Shockingly, many writers don't know that editing, proofreading and reviewing are three completely separate functions. Even if they do know the differences, when it comes to their own work, everything becomes an ego-driven blur.

Read Editing versus Proofreading: What's the Difference and Why You Need Both and share it with your writer friend if he seems to be confused about what he's asking you to do. Also, sometimes people confuse editing functions with reviewing.

Questions to Ask Before Editing or Proofreading Friends' Writing

Here's a list of questions that you can ask a writer friend who's asked for your assistance. These questions will help the writer focus on what he is actually asking you to do.

  1. Do you want me to just point out errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, word usage or page formatting? (This is proofreading.)
  2. Do you want me to look at your work in terms of how well it expresses what you want to say? (This is editing. Read, What is Editing? to clarify editing goals. This could also be the focus for beta reading.)
  3. Do you want me to evaluate if this book would appeal to a certain type of reader? If so, who is that reader? (This is also editing or beta reading.)
  4. Will you want to know if I personally liked your book or found it valuable? If so, realize that I will be honest with my opinions, both positive and negative. Will you want to approve my review before I post it? (This is reviewing.)

Don't feel comfortable with what's being requested? Just say so and say no... or further clarify what you're willing and able to offer in terms of help. With whatever is being asked of you, you definitely want to convey that you are honored to be asked to help, but that you will be as objective as possible in your evaluation and that any criticism is only an opinion of the work, not the friend's worth. You might have to remind your friend of this, possibly more than once if he's really new to the writing game.

After you complete your evaluation for one targeted aspect of the writing, you may find that your friend seems disappointed, as if he was expecting something else or something more. If you are willing to spend more time on this project (and that should be your call if you're doing it gratis!), then ask another one of the above questions to determine what is additionally being requested.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 26, 2017:

Hi Michelle! I would save the reviews for after the proofreading. Some people may confuse the two functions and provide poor proofreading or reviews as a result. Great question. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

Michelle on July 25, 2017:

Great post, I have a question though. Is it ok to have a friend both proofread my work and ask for a review of it at the same time? Or do I save reviews for after all the proofreading.


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 13, 2016:

True that, Larry! Constructive critique is often hard to hear. But later (sometimes much later), they will have a light bulb moment and it'll all make sense. Thanks for adding that exclamation point to the conversation!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 12, 2016:

My personal opinion, make sure you can articulate most your critiques. Be honest in a kind way. Your friends will thank you eventually.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 12, 2016:

Hello Laurel! Indeed, a well proofed paper or book is a polished and professional work. Thanks for adding that exclamation point to the conversation!

laurelwaiton on September 11, 2016:

Proofread is to read in order to detect and mark errors to be corrected. Professionally trained editors from the agency offer English proofreading online service, that is to say, they carefully proofread academic essays written by clients and make them perfect for submission.It is the easiest way to find out the errors in which the person is unable to know by own self. Proofreading is primarily about searching your writing for errors (polished paper).

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 04, 2016:

Hi Glenis! Agreed, sometimes it is better to pass on these opportunities. I do like the idea of joining a writers group to get that third-party feedback. You might be right... editing for mechanics might be the friendlier option. Thanks for adding your insight to the conversation! Have a great day!

Glenis Rix on Hub Pages on September 04, 2016:

Perhaps the best approach is to pass the buck by referring friends and family to a writers group, where there is an expectation that members will be friendly critics.

I don't mind editing grammar, but I would steer clear of being a friendly critic of plot and storyline .

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 25, 2016:

Hi Teaches! That's very supportive of you to refer them to editors... and very brave since many may not take that referral well. Indeed, I've learned the hard way that not defining what's to be done can get me in a never-ending battle. Thanks so much for sharing in the conversation! Have a lovely day!

teaches12345 on August 25, 2016:

I would rather refer a family member or friend to another editor. It is a sticky situation to tell someone they have little writing ability. Your suggestion to ask then what they want is excellent. This would help to define your role.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 21, 2016:

Hi Audrey! Ouch is right! This is the proverbial between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place scenario. Agree to help and possibly offend? Or decline and offend them anyway? We definitely need to evaluate the pros and cons of either action before agreeing to anything. Thanks for chiming in! Have a great week ahead!

Audrey Howitt from California on August 21, 2016:

Oh ouch! Yup--such a not fun place to be! Sometimes there are no easy ways out of this one--

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 20, 2016:

Yep, AliciaC, as FlourishAnyway emphasized, we definitely need to set boundaries and expectations when doing work for friends and family. They may not be happy with what we say. But at least they know where we stand. Thanks so much for stopping by and chiming in! Have a lovely weekend!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 20, 2016:

I like your suggestion to very specific about what we are going to review for a friend, to let them know that we will be honest and to let them see the review before we post it in public. These are all important points.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 20, 2016:

Hi Kathleen! Glad to see that you actually tried to guide your friends in their evaluations. As you found, though, friends can tip-toe around issues, think you're looking for praise, and get caught up with what your wrote. In a backhanded way, if they got wrapped up in your story, it's a testament to your good writing skills! :) So you could tap them for reviews, as opposed to editing and proofing.

You also make a good point about self publishing. Thank goodness we can always go back and fix our own errors.

Thanks so much for adding your experience to the conversation! Have a great weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 20, 2016:

Hi Flourish! I think setting boundaries and declining to participate is the best way to go in many cases. While they may be disappointed, it's better than dealing with the alternative. Again, thank you for the inspiration for this hub and for your kind support! Have a lovely weekend!

Kathleen Cochran on August 20, 2016:

For lack of funds I've welcomed the help of friends who were willing to read my early drafts. Quickly I learned they thought I just wanted them to tell me they liked my work. So I told them finding errors helped me and so did asking questions. Was there anything more they wanted to know about a character or a situation? Did they have to stop and reread a paragraph?

The major problem I found with non-pros was that they got caught up in the story and stopped looking for errors. The blessing and curse of self-publishing is you can always fix errors, but you can always find new ones also!

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 19, 2016:

Oh, what a quagmire! (I didn't look that one up in the thesaurus, haha!) Friends, relatives, and associates have tried to tag me to write reviews, introductions, edit, etc. but I don't like to do that because of boundaries. Authors I know range from a mentally ill uncle who e-published a book that is supposedly autobiographical (he claims to be the eyewitness to many historical events) to a legitimate national award-winning author whom I am lucky enough to be associated with socially. For me, it's best to just not get involved.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 19, 2016:

Billybuc, I think you did the right thing and dodged a friendship-ending bullet! These days, I'm more inclined to suggest that they pay me to edit or proofread their work, even if they're friends. That usually ends the conversation and request. It sends a clear signal that this is not something I do for friends... only clients. Good all around.

I know you're really busy these days. So I'm definitely appreciative that you stop by and comment. Hope you have a relaxing weekend ahead!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 19, 2016:

All true. Honestly, I prefer to NOT edit a friend's work. It is like walking a tightrope and knowing you are going to fall. I agreed to be a beta reader for one friend, and one page in I knew I couldn't do it, so I made up an excuse. I figured that was nicer than telling her she had no future in writing. :)

Happy Weekend!