You Can’t Edit Your Own Book and Here are 7 Reasons Why

You Can’t Edit Your Own Book and Here are 7 Reasons Why

A few months ago, the handle to the diverter valve on my shower broke off.

What does shower repair have to do with writing? And what’s a diverter valve?

You’ll never guess what happened when this writer tried his hands at shower repair.

As I later told the plumber, “I tried to do-it-yourself, but it didn’t do-it-itself.”

Sure, I pried the other handles off. I bought a wife-approved handle replacement set. I even accepted that my plumbing work was likely going to be fraught with equal parts confusion and frustration. But I was determined to see the project through.

I’d barely begun when I realized what I’d bought wasn’t going to work with what I had. I didn’t want to admit defeat, but I had to. I didn’t have the skills to finish the work.

That’s only one of the reasons you can’t edit your own book.

1. You’re too emotionally connected

If you’ve ever called your book your “baby,” you’re guilty of every writer’s chief sin: love.

No, there’s nothing inherently wrong with liking, or even loving, what you’ve written. You should be proud of bringing forth meaning from a blank page. But that kind of unabashed love for what you’ve created has a dark side: Blindness.

Think about first dates and new love.

Because you’re so enamored with the other person, you tend to look past their flaws (which they’re likely doing their best to conceal, just as you are). But if that relationship lasts, those flaws become more than noticeable. They might become irritating or even cause for separation.

In time, the willing blindness of early love leads to a reality check.

When you love what you see, you don’t see what you don’t want to see. Your brain loves you too much to inflict that kind of damage upon you.

Love leads to believing your book is flawless.

2. You’re too confident

If you’ve ever typed The End with a flourish and then hit Send immediately after, you’re guilty of writer’s hubris.

While you should celebrate the completion of any piece of writing, you should also know that you’ve only just begun. You still have self-editing, editing, pitching, querying, proposing, publishing and marketing to do.

If you’re one of the fortunate few to be agented and traditionally published, your book will go through a series of tortures — er, edits — that may cause you to doubt how well you crafted that first draft.

Overconfidence leads to believing your book needs far fewer edits than it deserves.

3. You’re too insecure

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck summarized a writer’s internal life so well when he wrote, “I know it is the best book I have ever done. I don’t know whether it is good enough.”

The struggle between “I’m the greatest writer who’s ever lived” and “This is drivel; I should quit writing” is real. But take heart: if even Steinbeck doubted himself during the writing of arguably his best novel, East of Eden, then it’s OK to be wary of your ability.

When you’re insecure about your book, you won’t know what needs to be kept and what needs to be discarded. Instead of thinking every word, scene and chapter are astounding, you’ll mistakenly believe that they’re all rubbish. Neither belief is true.

Insecurity leads to believing your book needs far more edits than it deserves.

4. You’re too familiar with your book

Whether you’ve been working on your book for a month, three months or three years, you know your book better than anyone else.

Even when you’re not consciously working on it, you’re subconsciously figuring it out. If you’re serious about your writing, your book becomes a permanent resident in your mind, always ready for you to pluck it from your mental shelf.

This is one reason why our books become so precious to us. They’ve been with us so long that it can be hard to separate them from our identity. But such familiarity clouds your judgment.

Put another way, how evenly do you judge family members versus those you hardly know? Your familiarity with family often allows you to judge them more harshly (or more leniently) than you would people you hardly know. A certain amount of separation allows for a more evenhanded response.

Familiarity leads to believing your book is you.

5. You’re too tired of looking at your book

Writing a good book is hard, time-consuming lonely work.

Depending on how much you’ve pressed yourself to do that work, you might be weary of reading your own words. This is no way to edit.

If you’ve ever found yourself skipping over parts during self-editing because you just want to get through that phase faster, you’re making a critical mistake.

Tiredness leads to mistakes.

6. You lack time

Proper editing requires many hours, including multiple needs to research questionable issues, like whether you’re using lie or lay correctly.

If you’re self-editing under the stress of a looming deadline, you may cause more harm to your manuscript than good. Writers hire editors who have the time and expertise to do for their manuscripts what they cannot do for themselves.

Busyness leads to shoddiness.

7. You lack expertise

I so strongly believe that every author needs an editor that it’s the subtitle of my book on editing, Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor.

Regardless of your writing capabilities, you likely lack the knowledge and expertise that a professional editor accumulates through editing dozens, if not hundreds of manuscripts every year.

Inexperience leads to amateurism.

Put another way, would you rather have a trained, experienced professional fix your shower faucet, or try to do it yourself based on YouTube videos and binging HGTV?

I know my answer.

Filed Under: Craft
Karan Bajaj

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  • Rebecca Jeffrey says:

    Thank you Cathy Bryant – excellent practical advice on how to self-edit successfully.

  • Blake Atwood says:

    Here are my recommendations for finding an editor:

  • KD Field says:

    My 1st book has been done for more than 6 months. I’ve read it so many times, I can hardly see the errors but I know they’re there. I started with one approach to chapters and abandoned it a third of the way through, but don’t have a new approach for how to break up the story logically from a readers point of view. The flow is good but I’m concerned an editor will find it a mess. This is why I need an editor, yet I don’t know where to start to hire one.

  • JoAnne Fletcher says:

    Your article above had some glitzes due to part of the sentences were blocked out.

  • philip says:

    For the people here who say that the publisher will supply their own editor, think again. The agent who decides to represent your work, take a very brief look, and decide if it’s worth her time. Typos, run-on sentences, plus lack of a strong opening will all send your opus to the slush pile.
    A top rate editor will tell you what has to be fixed, what is great and what is garbage. And they will be able to correct all that-or get you to correct it, without changing your voice.
    If you write as a hobby, then no, you don’t need an editor. But if you want your work to eventually reach the paying public, then an editor is compulsory. yes, it’s a gamble. But without one, you have no chance.

  • Taren Randal says:

    Finally, someone gets it. Editing is far more than spelling and grammar. They haven’t made an editing tool yet that can help you with things like tone, mood or psychic distance. While these tools are good at spotting the easy stuff they will never replace the human eye, or be a magic wand that makes a perfect book out of a first draft.

  • Tricia says:

    I’m currently editing (or re-editing) my first novel. I’ve written 5 since. I’ve come so far since writing the first one, that I’m finding it easy to see my mistakes. It’s actually a pretty good story. (This is the first time I’m reading the whole novel from cover to cover.) I’m so glad I waited until I had more experience to work on editing.
    I’m sure, if I’m so lucky to be picked up by an agent, that more editing will be in store.
    Like many, I can’t justify paying big bucks for a professional editor. Wish I could. Guess I’ll do my best with the resources I have available.

  • michael earney says:

    finding the right editor is the big problem. paying an editor is a big problem. retaining your ‘voice’ through the editing process is another. knowing, as one other comment stated, that you will probably never make back the money you spend getting the book out is another. with self-publishing you can always make a second edition fixing mistakes that will, no doubt, be pointed out.

  • Cathy Bryant says:

    Fortunately my experience as an editor and publisher meant that most of these didn’t apply. When I sent my MS to my publisher, I was told that there were fewer errors than in any other book that they had received.
    There are ways round most of the problems you mention. Prioritising editing is important, and giving it the time it needs, for instance. Re-reading the whole book, every single word, three times after completion, to catch every single error. Changng the font and font size, which helps to show up errors because your eyes are not seeing the version you are familiar with. Writing your next project at the same time you are editing this one, because then you are less emotionally connected to the work you are editing. It’s perfectly doable, provided that you have the necessary language skills. You just need to care enough not to be lazy about it.

    • Taren Randal says:

      Cathy Bryant said-

      You just need to care enough not to be lazy about it.

      Thank you, someone really needed to say that!

      • Ajay Henry says:

        To me, the paradox is that if a creative work is stream of concious with poor structure and weak motivation for characters to act, most editors will pass on it. Every writer needs a degree of editorial skills to bring a story up to a standard an editor can work with.

  • Even as a professional book editor myself, I need another pair of eyes (another professional editor) to read over and edit any of the books I am writing myself. 🙂

    Great article! Thanks for sharing.

    • Marjorie Quarton says:

      I agree with Cathy Bryant. As a professional editor myself, with 15 published books, my publishers did the editing for years. I was usually allowed my own way, and Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch went further, giving me her own books and those sent to Deutsch, both to edit and to learn the job.
      I have edited dozens of books and have developed a process that is easy to understand for new writers. I am never short of a job. I edit my own books, when they are supposed to be finished, but usually find some errors. It has to be done and we can’t all afford to pay an editor before the book has brought in an advance. It may never be published. What then?

  • Geo says:

    All of the reasons given are why you should put your work away for at least a month if it is a book. I have made all the above mistakes but distance is a great editor!!

  • Lee Wood says:

    I’ve used several editors and the most expensive was the worst. I found that particular one on a website that prides itself on ‘vetting’ everyone and you choose one of five that submit bids. Another editor did a fantastic job on my first nevel and sent my second novel back saying it was really good yet had hardly changed anything. I knew this was wrong. And at $950 for the privilege (50k words).
    Yes, editors are essential but be careful who you use.

  • I get it all…..i know my story in my head and sometimes forget to put a key word/phrase/age in that would help a reader when my mind is gone miles ahead AND I know the ending! 🙂 🙂 🙂
    as for the times I have put sum instead of some……
    I think the point about being emotionally invested is key 🙂 🙂

  • K.M. Allan says:

    “When you’re insecure about your book, you won’t know what needs to be kept and what needs to be discarded. Instead of thinking every word, scene and chapter are astounding, you’ll mistakenly believe that they’re all rubbish. Neither belief is true.”

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read something that resonates with me so much. Thank you.

  • Frank says:

    Yes to most, except – most do not have $3,000-6,000 to spend on an editor, for a story that may never be published (not tax deductible). Besides, if an agent likes it, they are their own editors.

  • Taren Randal says:

    I’m not a mechanic, but I replaced the head, water pump, alternator, and ball joints on my car after watching you tube. And yes, it still worked afterward. I’ve done other things on my car too, but didn’t need a video for that stuff.

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