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The Pitfalls of Self-Editing

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start. I’m an editor. I’m going to be biased, but I’ve seen this scenario so many times over the years.

As an author, you spend months, sometimes years, perfecting your novel, carefully considering each word, crafting every sentence, and polishing every paragraph.

When you’re finished you read through it only to find tons of typos and a multitude of grammatical blunders.

You edit as you go. You get rid of all those errors, and you rewrite and you rewrite. You sit at your computer and, to paraphrase Hemingway, you bleed. And you perfect.

You send your manuscript to some friends and beta readers, and they come back with a few issues and a few more spelling mistakes. And you edit and rewrite some more till you get your manuscript into the best shape you can possibly make it.

At this point, all the best advice says you should you send your manuscript to an editor. Let’s assume here that you do. And not just any editor. You’re diligent. You’ve searched the web, asked for recommendations, and found a well-qualified professional. Maybe you send a sample first. That’s always a good idea.

When the revision comes back, you read the body of the editor’s email first. It’s usually full of positive feedback and general encouragement. “Not too bad,” you think, “it could certainly have been worse.”

And then you open the document, and all you see is red—literally and figuratively.

Hardly a sentence is untouched. There are words—those carefully chosen words—crossed out and replaced. There are whole sentences—painstakingly rewritten sentences—moved or even removed.

“Am I such a bad writer?” you wonder. “Or is this editor an over-zealous quibbler who’s trying to justify that quite significant fee?”

It’s neither. There’s nothing wrong with your writing, or the editor.

Then what are all those red lines for?

There are countless things you could’ve missed on your third, fourth and tenth pass through your text, including:

And this is all before we get into passive voice, demonstratives, quantifiers, correlative conjunctions, and Oxford commas. And that’s just copy-editing. A structural edit with throw up issues with plot, character, story structure, and more.

So, how did you, the author, miss all of these after so many rewrites?

The simple answer is: self-editing isn’t enough. And here are three—among many other—reasons why:

1. You know what the text says. Or should say.

A spell-check will pick up on repeated words, such as:

Tom rode through the the ancient ruins in the dark.

But it will skip over missing words:

Tom rode through the ancient ruins the dark.

And you can easily miss these too, because your brain knows what the sentence is supposed to say.

2. You know what you mean. That doesn’t mean everyone else does.

Tom stopped his horse. He looked back.

Readers might think the horse looked back, not Tom (unless, of course, they already know the horse is a mare).

Dangling modifiers are perfect examples of this too:

Swinging his sword wildly, Tom’s horse stumbled and fell.

Even if Tom’s horse is very clever, it’s still unlikely that it was the one swinging the sword, wildly or not.

3. You know the story, and sometimes it really does help to explain it to the reader.

After days of searching for food, Tom was desperately hungry. He’d have to pick his uncle’s brains. Out of all the people he knew, his uncle had the biggest brain. It was the only way, if Tom was going to survive.

You, the author, know that Tom is not a zombie, but maybe, in all the commotion of the last battle, that’s not 100% clear to the reader yet.

“Tom has turned!” the reader cries. “Surely there’s no way to save mankind now.” Ten pages later, Tom saves mankind. And the reader is very confused. “Huh? But Tom was eating his uncle’s brains. He chose that nice big brain out of all the others.”

If readers are confused—even occasionally—they might not make it to the end of your novel, and will never touch anything else you write.

A good editor will read your novel at least twice and will be able to spot the exact point where any misunderstanding will arise and suggest a simple revision. Your readers will never know there was any confusion in the first place. And, when your next novel comes out, they’ll be much more likely to buy that one too.

Professional editors are trained to look for all these kinds of errors, which is why your friends and beta readers might miss them too. When editors read a novel for the first—and the second and the third—time, they don’t expect to see anything. They simply read and check the text, and suggest revisions.

Your readers deserve the best you can deliver, and self-editing is an important part of that, but you shouldn’t rely on self-editing alone before sending your novel into the world. Whether it’s for proofreading, copy-editing, or structural editing, make a professional editor part of your writing process if you can. But, yes, as I said, I’m biased.

What are your experiences with an editor? Was it worth the fee or not? What kind of difference did the editor make to your book—good or bad?

About Jim Dempsey [1]

Jim Dempsey specializes in detailed analysis of novel manuscripts. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [2] website, where he looks at different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and uses concepts from proven techniques in modern psychotherapy to offer editing advice to authors who want to publish their novels. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit.