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5 Self-Editing Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs

 Falling Man

Guest post by Reedsy writer Desiree Villena


You’ve finally written the last page of your book. The murderer’s revealed, the lovers united, etc.—time to crack open the bubbly, right?

Not quite. Before an author starts knocking on publishers’ doors, they need to perform a thorough self-edit. If a literary agent receives a book riddled with plot holes and chock-a-block with clichés, they’ll chuck it straight in the bin—they don’t have time for rookie errors.

So if you don’t want to end up in the trash, it’s important that you know how to edit your own work effectively.

Without the right guidance, you could spend weeks editing your hard-earned manuscript and only make it worse. To help you steer clear of this tragic and all too well-trodden route, here’s a breakdown of five common mistakes writers make when editing their own work!

1. Editing While you Write

Going back and forth between writing and editing can be a huge obstacle to finishing a book.

The persnickety side of your brain—the side that’s worried about grammar and publication—is only going to hinder the creative side. And that’s the side that’s going to produce a completed manuscript.

So write your first draft as if nobody will ever read it. Allow yourself to use the wrong words and just get everything in your head down onto the page, warts and all.

An excellent way to think of writing your first draft is simply as you telling yourself the story.

Once you have your completed, warty story, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what you need to fix. Only then should you listen to that persnickety side of your brain and go back to find the perfect words.  

2. Diving in Straightaway

I know I said it wasn’t quite time to crack open the bubbly, but you have just written a book — you deserve some sort of break!

More importantly, the first step in an effective self-edit is to put your manuscript to one side until you can become your work’s reader instead of its writer.

While your writing is still fresh it’s nearly impossible to evaluate it subjectively: if you know what you were trying to say, then that’s what you’ll read — even if it would be unclear to a totally green reader. 

Every author will agree that you should take some time away from your book before going back to edit. How much time, however, is open to interpretation.

Some will say several days is enough, others six weeks or two months. Zadie Smith has said that while a couple of months “will do,” she prefers to wait a year or more.

Don’t shoot the messenger! I understand that in most cases this isn’t possible. My point is, if you have the time to spare, wait as long as it takes for your project to feel new when you re-read it.

3. Copy Editing First

Copy editing before considering the bigger picture is a very common mistake, and one that you need to avoid at all costs.

Think about it: when you start to get book reviews, are they more likely to point out a flat and forgettable protagonist, or the Oxford comma you missed on page 136?

Besides, unless you’re the first to discover the secret to a perfect first draft (in which case, please share!), you’ll inevitably need to rewrite significant chunks of your book, rendering previous copy-editing useless. 

So focus on the fundamentals: a beginning, middle, and end, round characters with compelling arcs, and a central conflict that is intriguing yet clear.

There’s no quick fix when it comes to plot and character development; however, if you feel your work is lacking in one of those areas, try returning to your notes.

It might be you’ll spot something that’s gone awry, or you may need to spend a bit of time fleshing out your character profiles and storyboard.

The most important thing is that you catch these problems early and stop them from derailing your book! Once you’ve handled the bigger picture, then you can get your magnifying glass out and hunt down those excessive adverbs. 

4. Being Afraid of the Knife

Stephen King once compared editing a manuscript to “murdering children,” because taking the knife to your beloved story is really going to hurt.

Still, it must be done. “Cut it to the bone,” King orders. “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat.” If it helps, you can pretend that somebody else wrote your book — then you might be more willing to cut it to shreds. (Of course, this’ll be easier if you avoid mistake #2 and take some time away.)

Start by going through your book scene-by scene. Examine each one to decide whether it accomplishes its purpose and contributes to the story in a compelling way. If not, cut it! Then you can into the nitty-gritty, word-by-word editing.

Tidy up any patches of purple prose by asking, “Does this sentence contribute to the story?” If the answer is no, you know what to do. This is also your chance to get rid of any word that you looked up in a thesaurus. No exceptions.

5. Not Involving a Third Party

I know, I know, we’re talking about self-editing, but hear me out.

At this point, you and your book are in a serious, long-term relationship. You’ve grown so used to its flaws — the awkward phrases and the occasional typo — that you don’t even notice them anymore. Not to mention the deep attachment you’ve formed that prevents you from being objectively critical. 

For this reason, it’s never a bad idea to involve a third party editor. The work that a professional proofreader can do in the final, crucial stages is invaluable.

But if that isn’t in budget for you, then asking a friend or fellow writer to look over your book — or even just the most problematic parts — can give you incredible peace of mind before you publish.

As long as you avoid these five mistakes, the editing process is really all about feeling your way and spending as much time as you need to get your book where you want it to be.

It might be a bit of a grind, but once it’s done you can move onto the exciting things, like an exciting book cover design or a book launch, knowing that your manuscript is polished to perfection. 


Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, and in her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and giving (mostly) solicited advice to her fellow writers. You can get in touch with her at desiree.j.villena@gmail.com.

Photo by Joseph Gruenthal on Unsplash

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