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Mistake #5: Editing Too Little

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.

In this age of self-publishing, many readers complain that authors publish without editing. Often the authors accused of this heinous crime will reply publicly--often with a good degree of frustration--that they did, in fact, edit, or that they hired someone to edit, or some other variation on that theme.

So what’s the truth?

In my experience, most writers and authors are quite conscientious. No one wants to publish a bad book. But there's a big gap between a draft-quality manuscript and a polished, final book, and the many editing steps that need to happen in that gap can be skipped for a variety of reasons:

  • Authors trust their own editing instincts: Writing and editing use very different skill sets, in my experience. Writing is a creative, energetic, productive kind of activity, whereas editing is analytical, strategic, and methodical. It is entirely possible for a brilliant writer to be a less-than-great editor (and great editors are not always gifted writers).

  • Authors hire inexperienced or poorly skilled editors: There is no real established class, degree, certification, or license to indicate that someone is a qualified editor. All one need do is throw up a website and advertise services. This is not to advocate for some kind of nationally recognized editing stamp of approval--I firmly believe that poor editors will be chased out of the marketplace. This is simply to say that it's important to make sure the editor you hire is genuinely skilled.

  • Authors or editors skip an important editing step: There is an order to editing--start at the high level and work down to the proofreading. When authors skip any one of the steps, it shows. The book's organization or flow will be off, there will be grammar or usage errors throughout, or the book will be riddled with typos. Usually authors and editors skip these steps because they simply don't know they should do them.

When I wrote stories in my teens and early 20s, I didn't really edit anything. I didn't really know how to edit. All I knew were the basic parameters of "good" writing that my middle and high school teachers taught--vary your sentence and paragraph openings, use the serial comma, structure your paragraphs in five-sentence blocks, and that sort of thing. These rules and parameters weren't necessarily wrong--they just didn't really help me develop a process for editing well.

The thing is... high school and many undergraduate college writing courses don't really teach you how to edit.

They teach you how to write to the given parameters of the assignment.

That's an entirely different thing.

So when I was learning how to edit--my own work and the work of others--I had to sort of teach myself.

And what I learned was that editing is a much more challenging skill than most people understand.

My Mistake: Assuming Editing Would Be Simple

Spoiler: Editing is not simple.

In fact, editing is often harder than writing--especially when it comes to editing one's own work!

Editing requires a mental shift from creative mode to analytical, engineer mode. It's more than just knowing how long a paragraph should be or where to put a comma--it involves taking a methodical, strategic approach to an entire piece of content rather than just making sure there are no typos.

This mental shift can be tough for anyone with a modicum of skill in both camps, but it's especially difficult to re-read one's own work for the purposes of editing.

I had to learn several things about editing my own work:

  • Forests and trees are very real: With the entire story spun from my own head, I knew better than anyone else what I wanted to say, where the story was going, and what the entire world looked like. But people who did not live inside my head--i.e., everyone else in the world--did not or could not see the same things I could. I needed someone else to look at the forest as I wrote it and let me know where to plant, where to prune, and where to chop.

  • "Kill your darlings" should be amended: Most writers have heard the advice to "kill your darlings." It's not terrible advice. It's true that writers can get very attached to certain words, phrases, scenes, chapters, etc., and some of these "darlings" may not serve the overall purposes of our work. I think a better piece of advice is "be willing to kill your darlings." Look at all of those favorites with a critical eye and ask if they somehow shore up the work. If not, they should go, but if so... well, no need to kill darlings that serve a purpose!

  • Don't fixate on the little things until the big things are done: Just as in math, there is a proper order to editing--large to small. Start with structure and content and work your way down in layers of detail until the final proofread. Then you can worry about commas and typos. But there's no point in editing sentences that you may end up deleting entirely!

  • Be receptive to constructive criticism: When it comes to writing for my clients, I am possibly the most un-possessive writer in the world. I rarely push back against edits or changes that come from my clients unless I have a very good reason. But when it comes to my own fiction, it's a lot tougher to maintain that placid attitude! I had to remember that the editors I engaged were there to help me make a better product. While it's okay to say "no" to suggested changes on occasion, be sure you know why you're saying "no," and remember that your editor wants to help you improve your work so that it brings you the best results.

Finally, as an author, it's important to remember that all books have some small mistake in them—yes, even bestsellers! The goal is to give your book the best edit you can at each stage. For most people, that means finding another set of eyes (or two or three or as many as it takes) to edit. (For a good, basic editing process to follow, see my infographic “Editing: An Order of Operations.”)

Success Strategy: Once you’ve done as much editing as you’re capable of doing on your own, send your book to an outside party. Freelance editors offer a variety of services at a variety of price points—you can find editors for every stage of your editing needs, from structural development to final proofread. Even if you are an accomplished editor yourself, it is worth the money to have a second set of eyes look at your work.

Can't wait to read all the mistakes one at a time? Download the e-book today!

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