Should I Edit My Own Book? Six Myths About Self-Editing

You’ve finished your manuscript and you’re wondering: “Now what?”

How long to wait before diving back in with a red pen — a day, a week, or a month? How many friends will you be able to coerce into reading your newly-minted tome? Is editing something you can do on your own, or will you have to hand your baby over to a stranger for their critique? Googling “how to self-edit my book” gets you conflicting information, mixed messages, and a whole lot of basic information that any dedicated writer already knows.

This might be the time you start thinking about hiring a professional editor. Is it worth it? Can you get away with editing your own book? If you’re hoping to get it acquired by a publisher with its own team of editors, why pay out of pocket for one now? These are all good questions, but not all of them have been answered adequately. In fact, many writers have unknowingly bought into the myths surrounding self-editing and the role of editors in general. It’s important to do some research and address any preconceived misconceptions if you want to do what’s best for your new book.

Below are six common myths that pop up time and time again, both in conversations with other writers and through online blogs and forums. This list should not function as an assertion that professional editing is always the best choice, since every book and writer are different, but it does hope to lay out a few of the reasons that professional editing is not only a good idea, but a crucial piece of the literary puzzle.

Myth #1: A Professional Editor’s Main Job Is Grammatical

By far, the most common reason people cite for not hiring a professional editor is that you can fix most of the problems yourself. Search the web for tips for self-editing, and you will find they consist almost exclusively of grammatical mistakes to avoid or correct. For example, this website gives you tips like: “looking for problematic punctuation,” “removing all double spaces from the ends of sentences,” and “remove or replace your crutch words.” This one focuses primarily on things like “Avoid the words up and down” and “Avoid the term literally when you meant figuratively.”

These are all good tips, and should most certainly be employed by any serious writer in the weeks after completing their manuscript. In fact, most of these should be done before submitting it to an editor. (It’s polite to hand in a clean, proofread copy of your manuscript to an editor — see Myth #2 for more on that.) The key here is realizing that there are different rounds of editing.

  • Developmental edit — This is accepted industry-wide as the first editorial step. Getting anything else before a developmental edit, or even worrying about anything else, is ill-advised. When you contract for a developmental edit, your editor will read through your work, paying attention to the structure of it, how it flows, pacing, and which characters need fleshing out. They will help you fill in plot holes, reel in unruly side plots, punch up the ending lines, and maybe even change the title. Grammatical errors are not on the radar at this point. Right now, it’s all about helping you tell the best story possible.
  • Copyedit — Once the structure is securely in place, the next step is a copyedit. This is where the red pen comes into play. A copyedit can be heavy or light, depending on what is needed, and focuses on word choice. This is not just about grammatical errors, though; copyedits can include work on paragraph structure, dialogue, description, and overall tone. A professional editor will make sure to highlight your strengths, fix any inconsistencies, and help you lock in your personal narrative voice.
  • Proofread — Similar to a light copyedit, the proofread is what most of these “self-editing guides” online are discussing: Eliminating double spaces, adding or subtracting commas, making sure everything conforms to the style guide of choice. While professional editors can do this quickly and accurately, it is also very possible that a good writer with a keen grasp on grammar and punctuation could do this step themself (and this should be happening on the writer’s end from the moment their first draft is complete). That said, it is useful to remember that this is the very last step in the process, and the best proofread in the world won’t help a book that hasn’t taken advantage of the first two rounds of editing.

Myth #2: Contracting A Professional Editor Means I Don’t Have To/Won’t Get To Edit My Own Work

Some writers might think that contracting an editor means they won’t have to worry about editing their work themselves. Other writers might value the process of self-editing and be worried they won’t get enough revision time of their own. Rest assured, professional editor or not, you will have your fill of editing your own work by the time it’s ready to submit to a publisher or self-publish online.

As mentioned above, a writer hoping to make a good impression on an editor will have gone through their work at least once before submitting their manuscript for evaluation. Ideally, you’ll run through two or three edits on your own, using friends and beta readers as sounding boards, before soliciting a professional critique. This is not only professional, but polite — the literary equivalent of cleaning house in expectation of company.

This is a good idea for a couple of reasons. First, editors will be more inclined to care about your work if you care about your work. If your book is riddled with typos, inconsistencies, and errors, you risk the assumption that you don’t really care about getting it right. That’s a big red flag for any editor. Second, you don’t want to get a professional edit back that’s full of stuff you were going to change anyway and just didn’t get around to. That wastes your money and your editor’s time. Make it the best you can, and then send it off.

You’re also going to be editing after you get the work back, looking through their notes and corrections, deciding which ones to take into account and which to throw out the window (which is always your prerogative as the writer). You’re going to be writing a draft based on those edits, and ideally sending it off for a second round of feedback, moving through the rounds from developmental to proofread. You’ll email your editor in the middle of the night with a new idea for the ending, and the two of you will work that out together. The writer/editor relationship is about co-working, and works best when the writer is invested in the editing process.

Ultimately, while it gives you a great advantage and puts you in the best possible position for pitching your manuscript, getting your book professionally edited is not the easy way out (for better or for worse).

Myth #3: My Writing Is Good Enough That It Doesn’t Need A Professional Editor

Too often, the editing process is viewed as correction, the result of initial mistakes, a punishment for poor writing. I believe this has its roots in the flawed school system, where we are taught from a young age that red ink means bad work. In a creative partnership between a writer and an editor, however, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Every writer needs an editor. There is no writer on earth that does not benefit from a good solid edit from a professional. Being edited is not a value judgement on your work or your creativity. Editing is simply the next step in the process, and requires a different set of skills.

Saying your writing doesn’t need editing is like an architect saying his plans for a house are so perfect it doesn’t need insulation or a paint job. Of course, that argument is not only untrue but also reflects badly on the architect’s understanding of his trade. Every house should have insulation and a paint job, no matter how architecturally brilliant it is. It’s not a reflection on the architect’s ability to do his job — it’s simply a fact of the industry that you need to work with other people with different areas of expertise to come away with a finished product that is both structurally durable and aesthetically pleasing.

I ran into an award-winning British author in a coffee shop the other day, and we got to talking about editing. He said that no matter how many books he’d already published, he’d never consider working without an editor. “Working with your editor keeps you sharp and makes you realize what you love about your book in the first place.”

Myth #4: If You Know How To Write Well, You’ll Obviously Know How To Self-Edit Well

Both writers and editors work with words. Both (ideally) have a good understanding of story and narrative. But saying their skill sets are one and the same is not quite accurate. One guide to self-editing began by saying:

“Good editing skills are no different from good writing skills. If you know how to write a good plot, you’ll know how to edit one. If you know how to edit a great beginning, you’ll know how to write one. The storycraft is no different in writing than it is in editing.”

Now, I actually really like this particular guide to self-editing. It gives an unflinching account of the grueling self-editing timeline, and includes contracting a professional editor in that process. Unfortunately, this particular statement of isn’t necessarily true. Writers are predominantly creative, whereas editors are predominantly analytical. While writers spend time and energy developing the left side of the brain in order to best do their job, editors spend time and energy developing the right side. Of course, I’m not saying that the two cannot coincide — everyone uses both sides of their brains, after all. My point is that “A” does not necessarily equal “B” in this case. I know brilliant writers who are terrible editors, and amazing editors who cannot write to save their lives.

Extending the architectural metaphor a bit more, let’s go back to our previous analogy. The architect and the insulator both work on houses, yes. If they are any good, they probably have a pretty solid understanding of what the other does. That doesn’t mean you’d want to have an insulator designing your roof or kitchen, or an architect installing vapor barriers in your crawlspace. Saying that they are equivalent makes no sense, but that’s not a reflection on either one’s ability to do their own job. Likewise, writing and editing are two related but separate skill sets, and while it helps if an editor is also a writer (or vice versa), the two are not the same.

Myth #5: Professional Editing Is Not As Important If I’m Self-Publishing

More and more people are turning to self-publishing through platforms like Amazon’s CreateSpace or Kindle Direct Publishing. This is a good thing, not only because it is making room for an untethered creative community, but it’s also forcing traditional publishers — who are otherwise quite slow to adopt any new format or structure — to reevaluate things like pricing, sales, and marketing. If you are thinking about self-publishing, though, there are a few things you’ll have to keep in mind when considering editing.

Like it or not, there is still a stigma around the quality of self-published work. When people hear about self-published work, they assume — whether or not it is true — that it was a book that didn’t have a shot at getting “really published.” (When a self-published book is deemed a success, it’s only because a traditional publisher picked it up and “made it official.”) In many cases, because the value chain inherent in traditional publishing is not available to self-published authors, quality does indeed suffer.

The lack of the value chain is perhaps the most keenly felt drawback of the self-publishing world: Self-published books don’t get the benefit of marketing teams to shoot off galley copies and solicit blurbs, and they don’t get the benefit of a sales rep that will pitch it to targeted booksellers across the country. Only as recently as last year did Barnes & Noble even allow self-published books in their stores, and this unique and groundbreaking move was viewed by the industry as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to remain relevant as they watch sales plummeting after the Nook failed to catch on.

Hiring a book marketer or a sales rep is not out of the question, but their help will only get you so far if the quality of your product isn’t up to task. The easiest and most efficient way to keep yourself competitive if you’re self-publishing is to contract a professional editor. Solid editing will help your book stand out among other self-published work, and maybe even do its part to dispel the myth that self-published books lack quality. Finally, it will increase the chances of traditional publishers taking notice (or at least not holding your self-published work against you), if that’s something you would want down the line.

Myth #6: Professional Editing Is Not As Important If I’m Hoping to Get Traditionally Published

Let’s take the previous myth and flip it on it’s head. You may be wondering why you’d consider paying out of pocket for a professional edit if you’re going the traditional route, since publishers have their own editors who will do the work “for free.” This is a reasonable thing to ask, but should be considered in light of two things: your book needs to get through the acquisition process and once on the other side, it’s about the publisher’s goals and not your own.

As any writer who has gotten a form rejection letter (or two hundred) knows, getting acquired is it’s own ordeal. Acquisitions editors get hundreds if not thousands of submissions a day. Not only do you have to compete with the sheer number of manuscripts flooding their inboxes, you also have to compete against authors who have agents working on their behalf, or have a previous publishing history that makes them more appealing. Your book needs to be truly remarkable if you want to get past the initial slush pile. It needs to be absolutely stellar if you want to remain a contender after the editor has read the first ten pages. If your book is professionally edited, you up your chances of even getting access to the “free” in-house editors.

Assuming you do get a book contract and are given an in-house editor to work with, those editors are not working for you. They’re working for the publisher, who will have very clear goals for your manuscript. Your editor will be tasked with making sure your book fits within their backlist, ascribes to current trends, and is positioned to make a return on investment. Most likely, you aren’t going to get to fight back on a lot of this stuff, especially after you’ve signed a contract giving them the right to modify your manuscript how they see fit.

If you’re looking to build a book together with someone who cares about you and your work, who will strengthen your manuscript enough so it can punch through the acquisitions process ready to take on the world, a professional editor is probably your best bet.

So… How Do I Go About Looking For A Professional Editor?

A good professional editor will make themself visible to potential clients. Do a Google search for good editors in your area. (It’s also okay to contract someone for a purely long-distance edit, but it’s always helpful to the relationship if you can sit down for a coffee with them.) Where do your local writers’ groups meet? Go there for suggestions. Mine Craigslist, if you’re feeling adventurous. Be sure to do research on whoever you choose: What kind of experience do they have? What kind of books do they work on? What is their editorial philosophy? If you choose the right partner, your writer/editor relationship will not only polish your work, it will also better you as a writer and build you up as an individual.


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