Why Writers Can’t Edit Their Own Wrok

Writers Can't Edit
Writers Can’t Edit

A writer can’t edit his own work.

My friend the editor reminds me of this. Often. Especially when I leave typos in a blog post.

(Thanks, Robert.)

Why is this? Why are writers incapable of editing their work?

And why, if you are one, should you not even try?

You’re too close to the work

A writer is a creative force, a demigod who builds worlds and crafts universes.

Stepping back from such a creation and calling it “very good” is difficult for most of us (I suppose that’s only a job for a real God).

When you create something, you are attached to it. It’s hard to criticize and perfect. This is your baby, your child, after all. Yours.

Moreover, it’s not your job to edit your work as you go — that kills the creative process.

Doing this will get you stuck at word #2 of a 40,000-word manuscript. You just need to build it, and get out of the way.

You develop blinders

When writers write, they’re translating thoughts to paper (or screen). They’re taking what’s in their minds and putting it on display for the world to see.

But writers are not perfect. (This may come as a surprise to some.)

As you compose and craft, like any good parent does with a child, you don’t see your work for what it is. You see it for its potential, for what you imagine it to be.

In other words, you’re blind to reality. To the fact that you left out a word (or several), missed a comma here, and so forth. You need some fresh perspective.

You’re not objective

This is your work, after all. You have no way of telling if it is really bad or really good.

You need someone you trust, someone to speak the truth in love and help make you (and your work) better.

Not anyone can do this. But someone should.

Otherwise, you may spend your life thinking you’re a genius, when you’re mediocre at best.

Or worse (and far more common): you’ll spend your creative energy in self-doubt when you actually are quite good.

You just need some help. You need an editor, a coach, a friend.

Life is like this, too

As with so many things we discuss on this blog, this isn’t just true of writing — this need for a fresh, objective outlook. This is true of life.

We need patrons and peers, critics and cheerleaders. We need mentors to advocate for our natural skill and challenge us when we’re complacent.

We need help seeing who we are and what we do, not as we wish it were — but as it actually is. We need help editing our lives.

This time of year, I’m reflecting on how I spent my life these past 12 months. Did I invest in the right people and activities? Was I wise or foolish? How did I grow? And what can I, the author of my story, do differently to write a better one next year?

As I do this, I usually think about the tough conversations I’ve had, the conflicts I’ve experienced. I even ask for feedback from people I trust, inviting critique.

I do this, because I know I can’t reach my potential on my own. I need a team of advisors, a band of brothers — a community to become the person I am meant to be. And so do you.

We all need editors, despite the fact that we hate the process of fixing our mistakes.

Do you edit your own work? Why or why not? Share in the comments.

78 thoughts on “Why Writers Can’t Edit Their Own Wrok

  1. Hey Jeff,

    We were on Brazen’s 20 list together and I’ve been hearing your name echoed throughout my network so I thought I’d say hello. I think this is actually a really interesting point you’re  making.  I’ve started to notice that you really have to be willing to ask for help and get out of your own way in writing, business, and life. I think it’s great that you brought up that we’re too close to our own work.  The funny thing about this is we don’t see what is really bad but we can’t also see what might be really good. I had a post that went viral last month which I didn’t think was anything special. 

    There are many things in the E-Myth by Michael Gerber  that really echo some of what you talk about here. I’ve made the mistake of not asking for help for the last 2 years, but that’s going to change in 2012.  Really enjoying your writing. 

    1. Hey Srinivas!  Keep seeing you at my favorite blogs so I went to your blog.  I’m a huge fan of Lori  at Tiny Buddha, actually guest posted there this year.  The problem I had was when I tried to post a comment Livefyre put me through so many hoops I gave up.  Isn’t there a way to comment without giving Livefyre access to all my biz?  Just curious.
      Like your blog, though.

      1. Hi Barbara,

        Liveyfre does have guest commenting now. If you click on “post comment as a guest” then you don’t have to register and you can comment. Livefyre also happens to be the sponsor of my podcast 🙂

  2. Thnx for this one. Need to hear. Getting ready to submit articles to a few magazines and was considering skipping the pre-submission editor. I know I need one, though. I’m just learning how effective or ineffective I can be as a writer … and blasting my personal perspective into the ether for my own reasons may be “art” but it isn’t always helpful or for the greater good. Another filter is necessary. Plus – type-os … not fun to see after a submission. 🙂

  3. I actually have this really big problem of being an editor as I write. That’s why I failed so miserable at NaNoWriMo these past two years. I truly don’t know how to get over it. I also have this problem of just starting completely over and getting rid of the work that I’ve had. 

    Any advice you can give me for that?

    1. Yeah. You need to be realistic about your time. Give yourself time limits and be honest with yourself. If I give myself an hour-long block, I try to be realistic; I say to myself, “Okay, you have an hour to write or to edit. Which is more important?” Of course, it can be 30 minutes of writing, and 30 of editing or whatever, but I find it’s hard to switch between the two. Try to only do one at a time for a certain period of time.

  4. Indeed so true Jeff!

    I think it happens with most of us freelance writers so very often! I for one just cannot sit down and find faults in my own work, though I know there may be many. My best editor is my husband, so he edits for me, and I edit for him. And yes, when we can’t see mistakes from our own eyes, another pair of eyes are always welcome and much needed.

    Thanks for sharing , and wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year 🙂

  5. Even though I edit for a magazine, I always have the assistant editor edit my pieces. I need that extra pair of eyes. But I disagree with you about not editing as you go. I try to turn in as perfect a piece as I can, knowing that Kathleen will always make it better.

  6. thanks for this post – you are so right of course! it’s the same with art and painting – it’s either rubbish or ‘precious’ – each piece is a new ‘baby’ and it can be hard to hear criticism…. it helps if you can easily detach ‘yourself’ from the piece of work … although I think what makes us so creative is the fact we embed a little piece of ourselves into each piece of work – which can make even the most creative of criticism quite hard to swallow!
    But I love being part of a Facebook community where I can post a new painting and know that any ‘criticism’ I receive is constructive – and that if a fellow artist likes your work – that’s praise indeed!
    So be brave – stick your work out there – hold its hand gently – and be willing to learn and hear from others how you are really doing – you may well be very pleasantly surprised! 🙂

  7. I edit constantly. I think this is a trust issue on my part…I mean who knows the story I have to tell better than me (other than God Himself)? It is a hesitance on my part…but it’s a trust I know I am being called to engage in this coming year as I learn to quit editing myself…my story…my life…and just do the work. In turn, give it over to the hands of someone I know I can trust…who has been trustworthy with my heart for awhile…and let God do His work through them to edit it where it needs editing.

    Great challenge for me today and this coming year, Jeff! Thank you!

  8. IF I edit my work, it’s not for the final drafts.  I have to give some time between when I wrote it and when I read it.  Like….weeks or months.  Then I use a hard copy.  That time distance and the physical nature of the manuscript make it easier to catch things.  Also, I am less inclined to auto-correct a word in my brain while it remeains in eror on the pige.

  9. Excellent points! A fresh, un-biased perspective would be so valuable..but also kind of hard to find, wouldn’t you say? That was a vision I had for Linchpin bloggers in the future, where I could coach new bloggers for a time period, and provide critical feedback on every post created. But even myself, a self-declared pro (hat tip to your previous post), needs a coach. The best writers even need a coach. There’s always room for improvement. 

  10. Thank you for this. I’m really just getting started as a writer. Because of this I don’t yet really have anyone that I trust to edit, and so do it myself. Not sure if that’s because I simply given enough time yet to find one or (more likely) haven’t found confidence to try one out.

    Any recommendations to a writing noob with no known editor friends?

  11. I absolutely must have fresh eyes on what I write. I’m blessed with a critique partner I hooked up with many years ago at a local group for writers–she makes the pages bleed and causes much gnashing of teeth, but she’s worth her weight in gold.

    I’m in the process of rewriting  my memoir, and it’s excruciating–it’s slow-going because I have to pull back, pull back, pull back—and I’m so sick of the book that most days I want to torch it.  I wouldn’t have gotten this far without having fellow writers’ input.  They see things that I’m oblivious to–continuity, gaps in the time-frame, etc.

  12. Definitely agree with your take on this. Having a team of good friends, a band of brothers, to share ideas and reflect the growth of your progress is detrimental. There are many times where I talk to old friends that are across the country. We speak for hours, talking about situations, ideas, things we have done and haven’t, and it definitely clears some clouds in the head.

    As for editing work. I do edit my own work, but I do to my best ability and found it works best for me. I do have friends check over my work from time to time, but sometimes they don’t get to it as soon as I’d like them to.

    If I write something today, I won’t edit it until I wake up tomorrow morning. I re-read what I have written, and from there I can usually spot many grammatical errors and strange sentences. I do realize that I change up the post quite a bit after a day of getting my mind off of it.

    I think as writers it depends on how we function. Some people are great at editing as they go along, and others, such as myself, should stay away from this practice. Every time I try to edit as I go, I end up taking 3 times as long to write a post. My best method is getting every damn idea down on paper, say what I have to say, and cut the fat after I’m done. I realized this works for me best, but like I said, as writers we are all different.

    Nice post Jeff, Happy Holidays brother. If you ever need some fresh eyes, let me know, I’d be more than happy to help.

  13. Eh, it is important to have objectivity, but it’s also important to strive for perfection.  A perfectionistic attitude allows for the writer to slow down, smell the roses, know what comes next, plan, execute.  If he’s doing 90mph and expecting everyone else to do the meticulous stuff, then he’s not putting in a star effort.  Regardless, I agree that objectivity is vital.

    Great post, Jeff!

  14. Editors bring a new dimension, whether it is a website or story. The best one I ever had did something none of the others did — she talked to me about what I was wanting to say, and by knowing that she could often suggest restructuring sentences in addition to the grammatical or typographical errors.  She could do magic with a red pencil, and will always be my first choice.

  15. I laughed as I could see myself in your post!  However, there is a line in the movie, “Finding Forrester,” (2000) that should give us (e.g., writers) pause for thought and while it is referring to teachers of writing, I do believe it can extend to editors, too.  Here’s the line–Forrester (Sean Connery) warns Jamal (Rob Brown) that “bitterly disappointed teachers are either very effective or very dangerous.”  Same can be applied to editors.  A few years ago I wrote a small piece for a church newsletter and the person who edited it before it was printed edited the heart right out of it.  And, I didn’t get to even see the piece before it was printed, otherwise, I would have pulled it.  So while there are great editors out there, you have to be careful who you pick. As you stated it has to be someone you trust.

    While I’m no editor, I do edit what I write AFTER the first draft.  Another line in “Finding Forrester” by Forrester is this, “You write your first draft with your heart.  You rewrite with you head. The first key to writing is to write… not to think.”

    Anyway, I loved your post and it has some great thoughts about writing.  I happen to know a great editor who also happens to be a great writer, so I do think they (editing and writing) can be combined in the same person.  Professionally, she’s made her living all these years as a newspaper editor, but her writing is excellent, too.  Now, I’d definitely trust her to edit my writing!

  16. Hi Jeff,

    I fully agree with you. 
    I write, whatever comes to my mind or tip of my fingers, and many of the
    writings finish the way I never thought of. 
    But definitely, we need another pair of eyes, where can I find those
    pair of eyes.  Can you please help?

  17. Thanks Jeff!
    As creatives, we get in the way of our communication. We stumble all over ourselves to get our points across.  It’s a divine comedy 😉  But it sure is fun!

  18. I edit all the time. You might call it re-reading. Usually enough time has passed that I can see where I’ve used the improper word or the sentence structure isn’t what it ought to be. It’s what I do when I get stuck in my writing and can’t seem to make my way forward. I go back to the beginning of the chapter and sometimes to the beginning of the story and start reading. This helps me refocus on the main story so I can move forward. I have a couple of beta readers I use to catch the things you mentioned that I’m not going to see – namely problems with storyline and pacing. I would love to be able to afford an editor, but my beta readers are pretty good at finding things that need fixing. It would be interesting to see what an editor would say of their work. 

    Excellent post, Jeff, as usual. Thanks. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  19. Oh, PS I’m putting my Editor back on her job so somebody besides me can understand what I’m saying.

    Merry Christmas Jeff  to you and your family!

  20. Plus when you have an editor, you can be reasonably certain that there exists at least one person other than yourself has read what you wrote in its entirety.

  21. Thanks for this Jeff. 

    Can I add that I think you need a team of editors. I am preparing an eBook called the ‘The Unguided Pastoral Missile’. I first sent it to a school teacher friend who ruthlessly combed it for grammar and any little thing. 

    Then others joined the team. More typo’s unearthed. Thoughts, comments, ideas. So many that really a second book is being called for. 

    The other day I bought an ebook about marketing and selling your ebook, and what do know, I found a typo! 

    How do you know when to stop editing and tweaking and just release the bird to fly!

  22. some good points; especially the first draft should be writing and not editing. There is a place for polishing later. But an editor (EDITORS!) are essential to the process. Having a wife (former legal secretary) and also a mother (self-published author of 2 books) who are capable editors was a great help. -Paul Koehler, Telling God’s Stories with Power, William Carey Library (2010).

  23. Great advice Jeff.  I have two friends who I trust with editing for me.  I do edit as I go on my blog posts.  For my book I’m choosing stream of consciousness first and editing later.  Thanks for the post!

  24. Thanks for this Jeff.

    I have just finished writing my first e-book (the fluid writing, free-flowing part).

    I went into “editing” mode this past week and o my goodness, there seems to be so much  work remaining! 

    Am cutting, thrashing, slashing, tidying, re-positioning et cetera so much that am wondering when I’ll ever get the book out! I know that I sometimes edit my blog posts as much “too much” already. I really don’t want to do that with this book because I will just end up with another fresh manuscript 🙂

    Yes, having another pair of eyes helps because writers do end up miles-deep in their work, never really get things done in the name of perfecting the craft.

    Thanks for this post, has given me renewed energy to send it out to my coach. (yea, without worrying about it’s perfection) 

  25. I used to be an editor, albeit not a very good one. I guess you have to have the manuscript in your hands for several days, maybe even weeks if you are going to be absolutely perfect about it. Even during the final hours just before sending the finished product off to the printers, you are scanning for all the details. It can get to the point where you are actually criticizing your own work after it’s printed.
    These days, I briefly edit my own work on my blog before I post. I just don’t like to dwell over it. But you’re right, editing is a part of life, but it’s only that…a part. It shouldn’t become life itself.

  26. Thanks for the article Jeff, I do the basic edits and then turn my work over to my friend,coach and partner, who plays the Devil’s advocate and fine tunes my thoughts and my work. She is the one person I trust to be 100% honest about my work and who also calls a spade a spade. When it comes to editing my stuff, the kids gloves are off 🙂

  27. I echo points made by some other writers. I cannot afford an editor and have no friends. I’m not saying “poor me, I have no friends”, it is just I have been ill for a long while and people I knew a little drifted on. However, joining a writer’s group is one of my goals for 2012 which should help.
    Once again, the “people helper (Jeff) has helped”.

  28. I do edit my work, but I don’t until I’ve developed enough distance from it to be able to see the flaws and weaknesses in my work. For blog posts, it’s usually the day after I’ve written it, for novels it’s a few weeks (a month is best) afterwards. Even then I need extra eyes, though, which makes beta readers and critique partners fantastic resources. 

    Great post, Jeff! 

  29. Yes, I edit my own work. And yet, by the time I hit publish, there’s still a slew of typos to be found. (A loyal reader points them out every now and then). 

    I’ve baked standing up and reading into my routine as of late. Which means I’ll actually print a preview of the post, and make edits as I pace around. That usually helps. 

  30. I’m part of the editing process, and I think you’re mostly right on up here.  I just received the ARCs for my forthcoming novel and I’ve been thinking of trying that “read it from the last sentence to the first” strategy that I’ve heard about before. 

  31. Call me weird but I love fixing my writing mistakes. I love the editing process because it means I’ve already tackled the rough drafts and now I can embellish and play with the words. To me this is very enjoyable. I try my best to reread my blog and newspaper column copy with an eye for mistakes.  [OCD helps!]  When it comes to a full 80 thousand word manuscript, however, I know I need a trained eye. 

  32. Here’s a quick editing tip I used to give my students trying to pass the college required essay exam…  Once your draft is done, start at the end… ONE SENTENCE AT A TIME and edit.  Read each sentence for typos/spelling errors and grammar errors you know you are prone to make. 

    Taking it one sentence at a time helps break the continuity of thought as you were trying to put the work together.  It breaks the editing process into managable pieces as you check for basic grammar/syntax issues. 

    It can also help with flow.  As you check one sentence, see how it fits with the sentences before and after.  Is there a transition of thought, or is it just hanging out there with no real purpose. 

    Once you’ve done the grammar/transition exercise from bottom to top, then you can give it a final read to make sure it all still makes sense.  IF you’re doing this at home (rather than an exam room), I also suggest reading it slowly, out loud.  Sometimes we can catch things audibly that just don’t sound right that our eyes overlook, especially in our own work.

    1. This is exactly what I’ve done. Thanks. I’ve finished my first children’s novel and after editing it, many, many times, I took each sentence, reading aloud, and corrected anything this way. Finally have finished after a year and a half.

  33. And again, YES! I realized this before Christmas. I’d been hiding from my recent proposal, and finally realized it’s because I can live the book only twice (once lived, then once to write it) and survive the process. I hired an editor for my Christmas gift to me. And can I just say I COMPLETELY agree with what you said here. I used to think that if someone edited it, was it really my book? Duh… YES! Thanks again for being a straight-shooter here. 🙂

  34. So true. The only hope I ever have in editing my own work is to leave it be and forget about it for a long time. Only problem then is, well, if you have a deadline, you had better be really organized and able to almost time travel to the past. All in all, a writing community, a life community of people you can trust is your best shot. Just as you said. Thank you.

  35. I hear you on this one.  Just starting out and naturally doing my own editing…not sooo good.   I’d be alright if those trees would get out of my forest.

  36. I disagree with the notion that writers are not able to edit their own work.  A truer statement would be that writers who don’t want to do enough drafts to work through all of the problems need editors.

  37. Writers do need editors because we tend to become so involved in the story. It all makes sense in our heads and we may fill in the gaps or make mental transitions that readers can’t make. 

  38. A writer, I edit constantly, but more important, I obtain the services of a professional editor to edit the final copy. Thanks.

  39. Being a writer is more than just imagination.  It should also include the ability to ‘write’ correctly and that mean editing.
    Right now with six novels written since losing my job in May of 08 I would just be happy to find a literary agent who wants to get rich!  When a best selling author of many books tells you you are a good writer you have to believe it and live your dream….

  40. I love your posts. I love them I love them I love them! Definitely subscribing and spending the next week reading everything I can get my hands on! 🙂 So many lessons to be learned! I honestly wish you could sit down with me and teach me how to write. Haha xP 

  41. I too was quite frustrated about how I always missed a few things here and there.

    When editing your own work, It seems that the mind is constantly in limbo between scrutinizing the technicalities of words & sentences, and our own initial ideas & expression that were later translated into those words & sentences.

    When we skipped those mistakes, our eyes are scanning the sentences, yet the brain is unfortunately scanning our ideas. When the brain deems the idea fantastically superb, it feels like it bypass the judgement made by your eyes

    The brain of from a fresh perspective in the other hand will instantly focus on the words & sentences only, as they have no clue on you ideas & way of expression. So when the eyes spotted a mistake, the brain will have no other consideration to subconsciously justify those visual errors.

  42. yes I hate editing my work. Blog posts on my site are starting to become 3000+ words long, and I just don’t have the time to properly edit (especially since I wrote it).

  43. I’m still a beginner in the writing craft. My tutor is very tough and she encourages us to edit and rewrite our work. Of course, then she edits it too and makes me feel really bad 😉 (sorry!). I agree this should be done in the beginning, as we have only written small pieces. However, it must be very hard to edit your own novels, so you definitely need an editor.

  44. A GOOD writer is someone who can edit his or her own work. Most of the work of writing is editing. It’s a matter of discipline and practice, and can be learned. Sure, it’s easier to edit someone else’s writing than one’s own, but that’s no excuse for not becoming a more effective self-editor.

  45. I wish someone would give tricks to find an editor that can definitely preserve the vision of the writer while also correcting a few things. Say you were to picture your own self described inside a book, how on earth can the best editor on the planet be of any help to you? They don’t even know you in person to begin with, you are nothing more than another job they need to get out of the way in order to make money. But you know your work needs editing so that the publisher can accept it. What a dilemma!

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