Today I’m delighted to host Desiree Villena, who’s going to talk about self-editing, a topic I have discussed myself on occasion. Over to Desiree…
5 Common Self-Editing Mistakes to Avoid
Editing your own manuscript is one of those capricious endeavours that’s high-risk, high-reward. On one hand, if you’re able to perform an effective self-edit , you can maintain complete creative control over your work and save money on editing services down the line. Even if you intend to hire an editor regardless, an initial round of self-editing can make their job a lot easier (and their final invoice a lot lower) than you might think.
On the other hand, without the right information and expectations going into this process, you could end up spending hours on a self-edit that barely improves — or even degrades — your manuscript. To prevent this from happening, you can’t just rely on what you should do; you also have to know what not to do! That’s where this post comes in. Here are five all-too-common self-editing mistakes to avoid, both for your sake and your future readers’.
1. Diving in immediately
Sam touches on this in the post linked above, but it’s such an unequivocal blunder that it bears repeating: do not, under any circumstances, start editing your manuscript the day you finish it (or even the day after that!). For one thing, you deserve a break after all your hard work; for another, you need some space in order to evaluate your book as objectively as possible. This space allows you to detach emotionally from both your prose and your story, giving you the capacity to see where your sentences might be overwrought, or your plot a little bit patchy.
Writers have varying opinions on the ideal amount of time to wait before editing. I’d recommend a six-week minimum, though I agree with the above post that two to three months is better still. Zadie Smith, one of my writing role models, has said that this couple-month period “will do” — she prefers to wait a year or more, though acknowledges this isn’t always possible. However, her reasoning is airtight: “You need to become [your work’s] reader instead of its writer.” I think this can be achieved in six weeks, but the longer the better, if you have the time to spare.
2. Copy editing first
Upon commencing your self-edit, you may feel like you should start by going through your manuscript and correcting spelling, grammar and other mechanical mistakes: in other words, copy editing. Resist the urge to pick this low-hanging fruit! While it may feel like a good way to ease yourself into the editing process, it will almost certainly end up being a waste of time.
Unless you’re some kind of perfect-first-draft deity, you’ll need to rewrite significant chunks of your book in the course of editing — rendering any previous copy editing of those sections useless and forcing you to copy edit similar passages all over again. Indeed, copy editing before developmental editing can genuinely hinder later rounds of polishing! You’ll feel as though you’ve already caught everything major (even if you’ve technically rewritten a good portion of your manuscript) and give yourself permission to skim, or you’ll grow so impatient with rereading that you eventually just give up.
That’s not to say you can’t do any early-stage copy editing, especially if it helps you loosen up your editing muscles… but try and keep it to a minimum before you’ve worked through the big-picture stuff. If you know you wouldn’t change a word of your first chapter or your current book description, for example, you have my permission to copy edit as a (brief) warm-up to developmental editing.
3. Prioritising style over substance
Jumping off that last tip, another frequent pitfall of the editing process is caring more about the style than the substance of your work. Again, I know it’s usually more fun to tweak your prose than to address problems with your plot and characters, but even the most eloquent writing in the world won’t make those problems go away! On the contrary, it will aggravate readers, who’ll wonder why you put so much effort into decorating a mediocre-tasting cake when you could have been refining the recipe (if you’ll excuse the slightly mixed metaphor).
If the problem persists, you’ll end up with a book that’s eloquently written but ultimately shallow, or too long and meandering, or even completely nonsensical. I’m sure we can all think of books like this; don’t let yours become one of them! Even if you’re determined to cultivate a signature style, you must focus on the fundamentals first: a beginning, middle, and end, round characters who interact in interesting ways, and a central conflict that rings true and gets readers invested.
If you feel your work is lacking in any of these areas, try some writing exercises to develop them, particularly in terms of plot and character development. Once you have these elements nailed down, you can return to experimenting with your prose.
4. Comparing your work to other authors’
Here’s another issue that often befalls writers who believe shimmering prose is the end-all, be-all of literature: comparing their writing to that of other authors. For those attempting to pay homage to literary favourites, this can certainly exacerbate the style-over-substance conundrum, but there are other negative outcomes as well.
One of these, as you can probably guess, is editing your own writing to sound precisely like your favourite author’s — effectively erasing what makes you unique as a writer, and often forcing you into a style that doesn’t come naturally. In fact, in my experience, comparing my work to that of others typically results in the worst of both worlds: my own voice gets lost, and the one that replaces it sounds utterly contrived. (I still remember a painful summer of writing and editing when I was trying to imitate Gillian Flynn, memorising snippets of Gone Girl that had been posted on her author website in a desperate attempt to absorb her style.)
On top of all this, remember that your book is still a work-in-progress at this stage! Comparing it to a perfectly polished, published title is unfair on every level. To that end, if you feel especially impressionable or fragile while editing, I’d suggest steering clear of well-written books altogether — or reading exclusively outside your genre to avoid potential comparisons. Just as you need mental space from your own book at the start of this process, you also need it from other books once it’s time to get to work.
5. Not getting a third-party proofreader
I know this post is about self-editing, but hear me out: even once you’ve gone through your book multiple times with a fine-tooth comb, you can’t guarantee error-free copy without a professional proofread. The harsh reality is that your own biases will keep you from fixing phrases that sound awkward to everyone else, and your brain will skip right over typos because you’ve seen them a million times. So once you’ve powered through the developmental and copy editing stages, don’t kid yourself — hire a proofreader for this final, crucial part.
Naturally, there are many other ways that the self-editing process can go awry, but these five are perhaps the most prevalent and harmful. They’re also all mistakes that I’ve made myself, about which I wish someone else had warned me! So do as I say, not as I’ve done, and embark on your own self-editing journey with the confidence and clarity to evade these terrible traps.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and giving (mostly) solicited advice to her fellow writers.