Note: This post is part of my seven-week series about the mistakes people make when writing a book. To read from the beginning, start here.
Is it possible for a book to be over-edited? I believe it is. Many authors, in their quest for elusive “perfection,” struggle to let a book go at all. Whether it’s a matter of sending it to a publisher or agent or hitting the publish button on Amazon, the temptation to read it over “just one more time” can paralyze many authors into inaction.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Mistake #4, Sharing Too Soon. My mistake was assuming that my work was ready for general public consumption and discovering that it was not anywhere near ready. While competent editors helped me get the book to a point where it was publishable, the unintended consequence of all this additional editing was to chase me into a burrow of fear about sharing at all. In that weird little cocoon, I found myself editing to the point of squeezing every bit of life and personality out of my work.
My Mistake: Editing All Evidence of Humanity Out of My Work
Admittedly, over-editing a book is more of a psychological mistake than a writing mistake. In the aftermath of some rejection, I went too far in the other direction. On works subsequent to that first novel, I either resisted editing entirely (so that I would never have to share) or edited to the point that the manuscript itself practically begged me to stop.
Neither approach was helpful or productive.
The usual goal of writing a book is to release it to the audience. That ultimate act can feel herculean to someone who wants to publish a well-received, "perfect" novel. One final brave act of letting go requires dozens of little acts of courage along the way.
For those of us who struggle with imposter syndrome or perfectionism, releasing a book to be read by others--even trusted beta readers, editors, and proofreaders--can send us into a spiral of self-doubt, anxiety, and paralyzing fear.
What if they hate it? What if they find huge mistakes? Plot holes? What if my characters are horrible and unsympathetic? What if my research isn't good?
As professionals, we want editors to catch those things.
But as humans? Well, that's a trickier proposition.
Because I tend to be a good line editor, copy editor, and proofreader, I can edit the life out of my work on a molecular level and potentially skip over big content problems. I have to be willing to let other people read for the big content problems before I edit on the smaller level. Otherwise, I edit work that could be changed or cut entirely.
But letting someone in on imperfect work is... painfully difficult.
There comes a point, though, when you simply reach the end of a stage and have to move to the next one. Otherwise, you end up with file after file of unfinished, unpublished work that will end up haunting you. (Don't ask me how I know.)
So how do you avoid over-editin
Break it down: Sometimes, biting off large chunks of editing actually leads to over-editing. It's almost like eating Thanksgiving dinner--it's easy to overindulge and entirely forget that you already had two helpings of sweet potato casserole. Breaking your editing down into smaller bits or stages can help you better track what you've already done. Send just a few chapters or an outline or a rough draft to your editor and breathe. Or if you aren't ready to share yet, just edit one thing--one concept or one plotline or one character at a time. And then--and this is very important--call it good, let it lie, and move on to the next step.
Ask for help: Professional editors are your friends. They edit to make the work better, not to make you miserable. And you should be partners, not adversaries. Listen to the advice of your editor(s), but it's okay to push back or ask questions. The give-and-take of a good working relationship with your editor will, in turn, make a better book. And when your editor says that your work is ready to publish or send to an agent or publishing house--well, trust that judgment.
Follow a logical editing order: Edit your work from large to small--in other words, start with the big stuff (organization, structure, concepts, outline, etc.) and move down levels until you get to the small stuff (line editing and proofreading). When each stage is complete, either by you or someone else, leave that level alone and move down. (Download my infographic Editing: An Order of Operations for more detailed info.)
Practice: A good way to practice releasing your work is to release small pieces in the form of blog posts or articles. The act of publishing small pieces will make it easier to finally release the larger work to your audience.
Recognize that your work will not please everyone: A trick to reinforce this message: Look up your favorite books on Amazon or Goodreads and read the worst reviews. Then look up your least favorite books and read the best reviews. No book satisfies everyone who reads it. You cannot edit enough to please everyone.
Do I have this all down perfectly? Well, no. I still have several unedited manuscripts on my computer. My heart still races when I think about releasing my work to the public. I still hold my breath in fear of a review that says my work is poorly edited. I don't know if releasing work will ever been easy, but I think it's easi-er than it used to be. And should I manage to find the time to edit all of those manuscripts and release them to the audience, I hope that it will become easier still.
Writing is a journey and a process. Your first work will not be as good as your tenth work or hundredth work, but it's also possible that your fiftieth piece will be your best ever and your thousandth will be the dumbest thing ever written by man. Who knows? The creative process is a mysterious thing, and part of becoming a writer is learning how to roll with it, embrace it, and release it to the next stage. That's the only way you'll be able to move on to the next work.
The truth is that there are no perfect books—none. The goal is to get the book to “good enough” or “better than most,” not perfect. Once you’ve gone through all the stages of editing, it’s time to execute.
Success Strategy: Pour a glass of your favorite beverage, take a deep breath, and push the button (whatever that button is).
Can't wait to read all the mistakes one at a time? Download the e-book today!