6 Things Almost All Writers Get Wrong When Self-Editing
Lisa Lepki is the Editor of the ProWritingAid blog. A word nerd, she loves the technical elements of writing almost as much as the writing itself. In this post, she reveals a few of the most common editing mistakes that authors make.
As an editor, I see writers making the same mistakes over and over again.
I’m not talking about narrative or character development here. I’m talking about the technical elements of your text, like sentence construction and word choice. Almost all editors are happy to help you with the meaty parts of your writing, like dialogue and structure, but they get frustrated if they see common rookie mistakes.
Believe me, more than one publishing professional has chucked a manuscript in the recycling bin based solely on amateur mistakes like overuse of passive voice or over-reliance on adverbs.
Here are six ways that I have seen writers go wrong:
1. They try to edit as they write
The creative part of your brain — that’s in charge of imagining your scenes, conceiving your characters and telling your story — is very different to the part of your brain you use to edit. Going back and forth between the two of them will make you lose momentum — a key reason why many writers never finish their book.
Don’t worry about analyzing every word as you go along. Don’t beat yourself up if you use a cliché to get an idea across while you are in creative mode. It’s not even a problem if you “tell” rather than “show”, as long as you get your story out of your brain and onto the page. All of those issues are easy to fix when you go back and edit.
So, for your first draft, just let the words flow. Give yourself the freedom to use the wrong words and have faith that you will be able to go back and find the right ones in due course.
2. They try to do everything at once
There is a common problem among writers called “terrible second-half syndrome,” or TSHS. Okay, I just made that term up, but I promise it’s a thing — because I have done it myself.
Somewhere in the depths of my hard drive, there is a manuscript I completed about twelve years ago. This was my first major piece of writing and I was delighted with it! Life got in the way and so I never really did anything with it, but I found it again last year. It had a serious case of TSHS. The first chapter was perfectly crafted, full of powerful imagery and compelling scenes. The second chapter was not quite as well-polished, and then it just went downhill from there. The last chapter didn’t even really make sense! Sound familiar?
I see this a lot. Writers start their self-edit full of vigor. They painstakingly assess every word and every construction… and then they begin to lose interest.
I get it. Editing can be pretty frustrating (i.e. boring) if you are more creatively inclined. So, instead of trying to get every element perfect on your first round, I recommend working on one issue at a time.
For example, your first round might be Adverb Annihilation:
Go through your text from beginning to end and just look for adverbs. There is nothing technically wrong with adverbs, but they are often used to add oomph to a dull verb. Check to see if you are guilty of doing this and replace the dull verb with something better.
She hastily took the phone from him.
She snatched the phone from his hand.
If you get your brain tuned into adverb replacement, you will be amazed how quickly you can get through your entire text, making it stronger all the time. On your next edit, you may choose to go through and look for instances of passive voice, making it active where appropriate. Then focus on sentence length: which sentences are too long and rambling and would be more clear if they were shortened or divided into two?
And so on and so on, one issue at a time, from top to bottom.
3. They think technology is cheating
We hear this all the time:
If you need to use an editing tool, then you shouldn’t be a writer at all.
We respectfully disagree. Generally, this comes from the idea that if you are going to be a writer, then you should already know all the techniques of writing. While it’s hugely beneficial to learn grammar and writing techniques, it doesn’t allow rookie writers the opportunity to practice and learn “on-the-job”. We constantly hear from teachers who say that when they ask their students to use editing technology (like Grammarly and ProWritingAid), they develop their writing skills faster.
Technology, ideally, lets you do the thing you were always doing, but more efficiently. When you are searching for adverbs, for example, you can search each sentence, one by one, to see if there is an adverb. Or you can use an editing tool to highlight them all for you. The result is the same, but which one will take less time?
There are other ways that technology can be useful. For example, you might not realize that in your short story you used the phrase “she couldn’t believe her eyes” a total of seven times. That’s a lot! Your reader will probably notice and find it strange. The last thing you want is for your writing to pull your reader out of your story’s world. An editing tool can analyze your manuscript and make a list of every repeated phrase so that you can add more variety if you need to.
4. They forget to ‘unglue’ their writing
I didn’t realize it before, but I recently noticed my penchant for long, winding sentences that squeeze several ideas into one. You know, the kind you have to read twice before you get their meaning? The giveaway for these “sticky sentences” is that they contain a much higher percentage of glue words than your average sentence.
Again, you can probably find these sentences yourself if you comb through your manuscript, but for efficiency’s sake, it makes more sense to use an editing tool to highlight them for you.
5. They don’t cut out the clutter
Every word in your document must be there for a reason. Beautifully chosen words won't matter if they don't give essential information or move the story forward, it’s just cluttering things up.
Look at your work and see if you can find clutter. Let’s look at an example:
It is our opinion that the problem first began due to the fact that a sufficient amount of hollow tubes for the experiment were not produced by the company.
We think the problem began when the company did not produce enough tubes for the experiment.
These sentences both say the same thing, but the first one is full of clutter. Here are the problem areas:
- “It is our opinion that” is a much more convoluted way of saying, “We think”.
- It is redundant to say that something “first began”. The word “began” already means “first”.
- You can replace “due to the fact that” with the much simpler “when”.
- “A sufficient amount of” is a cluttered way of saying “enough”.
- Tubes are always hollow, which means that the word “hollow” is redundant.
- The passive voice means “the company” is right at the end of the sentence, delaying its meaning and lessening clarity.
We’re not suggesting that you dumb your writing down. We just want your ideas to come across as clearly as possible and if that means cutting back on prepositional phrases, so be it. If readers have to spend time — and brain power — trying to make sense of your language, then they may miss something critical. (Indeed, if this is a big problem for you, maybe skip the self-edit and just hire a line editor!)
6. They don’t take time away
Once you finish your first draft, you need to step away. It’s nearly impossible to evaluative your writing when it’s fresh. You know the idea that you meant to get across, and so you see it in your words... even if it isn’t there!
The other benefit of moving into editing mode is that it gives your creative brain a break. Spending a couple weeks copy-editing will allow you to return to your story refreshed. You’ll be able to see those plot holes with fresh eyes.
Want to learn more practical self-editing techniques? Take the time to explore a few in detail in the free 10-day Reedsy Learning course, How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript like a Pro.