Why Friends Can’t Edit Your Book

Five Reasons Why You Might Benefit from Less “Friendly” Help

You’re a smart person with smart friends! Some generous friends have offered to read your manuscript-in-progress and give you feedback! You accept. Because why not?

Well. Great question. Here, based on years of observing firsthand how authors struggle to use feedback from friends who are neither professional writers nor editors, are five reasons why not:

They can diagnose a problem but can’t recommend a good fix.

There’s a vast gulf between being able to come up with a correct diagnosis and knowing enough to prescribe a cure. If there’s a big problem with your manuscript, chances are people will notice this problem. A friendly reader might even be able to name what the problem is beyond “that part didn’t work for me.” But if they have nothing to offer when it comes to brainstorming how to address the problem, you’re left with the criticism only.

The fix they suggest fixes nothing.

This happens even more often than the above! Because your friend is your friend, they will try to be helpful. So they’ll make some gentle suggestions — nothing too major, usually. “Give us more detail here,” for example. But let’s say they’re wrong. A wrong prescription can have you wishing you hadn’t solicited their help in the first place.

Only it will take a while for the wrongness of their advice to become clear. You discover it after you’ve edited the manuscript following your friend’s suggestions, only to later have the manuscript read by a professional editor, or readers, and find that all those changes didn’t really fix anything. Your work still exhibits the same problem it had before. In some cases the fix not only didn’t solve the problem, but created additional problems. Now you’re left with the criticism of your work, the knowledge that you’ve just wasted a few weeks of work, and self-doubt.

The fix they suggest distracts you with busy work when the real problem is more fundamental. Related, or at least similar, the friend doesn’t understand how much work is involved in solving the problems that they point out.

Busy work — what the brilliant, late Carol Bly called “literary fixes” — has its place. Your sentences will be prettier afterward. But if the problem with your manuscript is that on some level it’s emotionally dishonest, or if you as an author haven’t fully come to terms with why you’re writing it (obviously this is overwhelmingly true for memoir writers, but this truth affects historians and political thinkers and many others as well), then you’re really, really, really, really, really wasting your time.

Same goes for if your fundamental problem is that you’ve arranged everything in your manuscript in the wrong order. It’s not organized in a way that aids understanding or persuasiveness. In that case the fix will require breaking up the manuscript into parts and reassembling it from scratch. Your friend’s suggestion that you “make it funnier” may be on-point, but simply sprinkling more jokes throughout won’t make it funnier if the larger issue is that your reader should know XYX by page 10, not page 100.

As for not knowing how much a time such a fix might take, the truth is that having a professional editor doesn’t always protect against this. (That’s why I recommend you find an editor who has also written at least one book.)

But here’s why it’s a problem for you, them not knowing that one little comment could send you off to sweat 20 hours of additional work, when thanks to their inexperience they imagined it would take all of 15 minutes. That level of underestimating could lead them to underestimate how much support you’ll need, or how hard it is to absorb feedback that’s essentially telling you your hoped-for finish line is still weeks away.

It’s like when someone asks for a minute of your time. Rarely does what they want take a minute.

Their recommended fix prompts you to apply more energy to the wrong place.

There’s a little-known phenomenon in which a problem in one part of the body causes tenderness in a different part. I’ve written more about that here.

This is called “referred pain”; where the source of the pinch and where we feel it are not the same place. The film editor Walter Murch — whose books should be required reading for all types of editors — described how this played out in creative realms. Say you assemble a focus group to watch a new movie. After the test screening, 80% of the audience reports that they don’t like a particular scene.

The temptation will be to change that scene. Fix it. But an experienced director and editor will know that the audience may not care for that particular scene because they lacked a crucial bit of information. Or that the scene might work beautifully just as is, if only another lead-up scene were written and inserted earlier in the film. So all this to say: a friend’s inexpert advice can have you fixing something that isn’t broken.

They have a hard time separating their feelings for you from their impression of the narrator/main character.

Your friend loves you, and thus finds it hard not to see your lovable qualities on the page. It’s truly lovely to experience loyalty like that. But it doesn’t help you understand how a stranger will respond to the same material, which is what you really want.

All this to say: Don’t despair! There are several ways to find good independent editorial help, and StreetLib Market is one of them. Please check it out. If you’re an independent editor, the door is open and you’re welcome to set up a profile there.

PS. Just a quick nod to how nicely Susan DeFreitas sums up much of the above in a guest post for Jane Friedman’s blog:

“The point of hiring an editor or book coach is not just to have someone tell you your manuscript is a mess — it’s to have someone to help you think through the fixes and come up with one (or more) that’s viable.”

Here’s to more viable fixes! Happy weekend.