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

Updated on June 28, 2017
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a self publishing expert, author of 21 (and counting!) business books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.


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 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 do you do when a friends' or family members' writing stinks?

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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!

But how can you head off some of the negative impact of your feedback?

It's all in the setup.


The SETUP for Less UPSET When Evaluating Friends' Writing

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, as discussed in Proofreading Tips: Using Amateur Proofreaders, 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. Click here to 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.

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 11 months ago from Olympia, WA

      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!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 11 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 11 months ago from USA

      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.

    • profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 11 months ago

      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!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 11 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 11 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 11 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 11 months ago from California

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

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 11 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • profile image

      teaches12345 10 months ago

      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.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 10 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • profile image

      Glenis Rix on Hub Pages 10 months ago

      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 .

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 10 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • profile image

      laurelwaiton 10 months ago

      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).

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 10 months ago from Chicago Area

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

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 10 months ago from Oklahoma

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

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 10 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

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