7 Self-Editing Mistakes to Avoid Like the Plague

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Many writers think that editing their work will be a walk in the park, but this couldn’t be further from the truth! When it comes to self-editing, it’s easy to be biased and overlook your mistakes.

Editors see their fair share of blunders that have nothing to do with plot or character development but rather with sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and the like.

It’s no secret that many literary agents toss manuscripts in the trash bin simply because the authors overuse the passive voice or are too verbose. It’s important to write a grammatically correct manuscript, but make sure you’re not “hypercorrecting” and making even more mistakes.

This article looks at the seven most common mistakes writers make over and over again when self-editing. To avoid these pitfalls, you may want to consider submitting your manuscript to our professional editors.

1. Writing and editing at the same time

The brain is divided into two parts: the left hemisphere, or the analytical brain, and the right hemisphere, also known as the creative brain. We all have one dominant side. Some people have what is called a “golden brain,” where both sides function equally, but this is rare.

When you’re writing, you are using the creative side of your brain, and when you’re editing, you are using the analytical side. Trying to switch back and forth between the two overwhelms your brain and constitutes a recipe for disaster. You will end up losing your focus and becoming unable to write or edit as effectively. When you’re “in the zone” and feel inspired by ideas, just keep writing. You don’t have to go back and check for mistakes right away. It doesn’t even matter—you will eventually reread your work and spot the mistakes later anyway. Just let your fingers type, and don’t worry about making everything perfect the first time. 

The first draft is supposed to be unrefined—that’s why they call it a “rough draft.” Try to focus only on your creativity when writing your story for the first time. Even if you know that a sentence is somewhat clunky or awkward, don’t bother with changing it right away. If you stop at every sentence to check it for any possible errors, you will slow yourself down, and your creativity will suffer. Let your rough draft be imperfect, and keep in mind that you will go back and edit it once the whole manuscript is finished.

2. Going full throttle on your first edit

We get it: Editing can be excruciatingly boring. It is, therefore, perfectly normal if you want to get it all over with at once. However, it doesn’t work that way. Editing involves many phases, and you should complete one phase at a time. If you try to concentrate on the writing style, the grammar, the plot, and the spelling all at once, you will end up missing something. Instead, split it up as follows:

- Developmental editing: This is when your main focus is the characters, the plot, and the story as a whole. You look at the big picture and gauge what’s working and what needs to be deleted. At this stage, you aren’t looking at your grammar or spelling; instead, you are focusing more on the major plot elements and making sure that everything works. Getting a third-party opinion on your story elements, which our developmental editors can offer, is particularly valuable.

- Grammar: This is when your analytical brain comes into play. In this phase, you will check your syntax, sentence structure, tenses, use of the passive voice, and any redundant or ambiguous phrasing. You may want to focus on one grammatical aspect at a time.

For example, you can check the tenses first (to ensure a smooth and cohesive storyline), and then move on to comma splices, inappropriate passive voice use, verbosity, and so on. By focusing on one type of mistake at a time, you will minimize the chances of missing something. If you try to do too much at once, you will undoubtedly overlook something. Though this is time-consuming, it will be worth it in the end as your manuscript will be more polished.

- Structure: Here, you will check your sentence and paragraph length, as well as your punctuation. You want to make sure that your sentences are of varying lengths. A book filled with mostly long sentences will be a chore to read, and one with mostly short sentences will feel choppy. Readers will appreciate a book that is interesting to read, and by writing sentences of different lengths, you will be strengthening the structure of your story.

- Proofreading: Last but not least, you need a final read to catch any stubborn typos before submitting your work. It’s best to outsource this to someone else—like our professional proofreaders—since it’s difficult to detect typos in a text you’re intimately familiar with. This is the final check. Hopefully, at this point, you have already caught all the major errors, so proofreading should throw up only a few errors per page.

The idea is to complete these mini-tasks one by one, taking your time so that you don’t get overwhelmed or bored.

3. Avoiding tools

You’ve probably heard many people say that using editing tools makes you a bad or lazy writer. They think an author must already be a foremost expert on everything related to writing and grammar. While knowing everything would be wonderful, it simply isn’t possible. Learning while writing is the key to becoming a great writer.

Using editing tools will not only help you edit your work efficiently, but it will also save you a lot of time. It allows you to do what you would have to do anyway but with AI assistance. With a tool like Grammarly, for example, you can do your editing in chunks. You may choose to focus on inappropriate passive voice usage first, then move on to wordy formulations, and so on. Just don’t rely too heavily on tools—after all, they don’t understand the complex subtleties of human language, and they make a lot of mistakes, too.

Not only do AI-powered editing tools help you with language and structure, but they also enable you to spot mistakes you would easily overlook otherwise. For example, using the same phrase over and over again in a long manuscript can be easy to miss. An editing tool can identify frequently repeated phrases, giving you the opportunity to make changes. Again, you want your story to be interesting, so if you keep regurgitating phrases or ideas, readers will become frustrated or bored.

4. Using too many “sticky sentences”

Ever get lost in a long sentence and find yourself just waiting for it to end? Sentences that are overly verbose and difficult to follow are known as “sticky sentences.” They use a lot of “glue words” that make them too long, confusing, and cumbersome.

Let’s have an example.

Sticky sentence:

“Amanda was not able to find a solution to her problem until she was faced with the fact that moving her life to another country was the only way out.”

Smart sentence:

“Amanda realized that moving abroad was the only solution to her problem.”

With any sticky sentence, it should be possible to summarize the key idea much more succinctly. Less is more. If you think you can say something in fewer words, then pare your sentences down to their simplest form. Your readers will thank you as they will have less difficulty understanding your meaning and will be less likely to have to reread the same sentence over and over again.

It’s easy to overlook these sentences, but an editing tool can help you address this problem.

5. Filling your manuscript with unnecessary content

Stephen King once said, “Revising a story down to bare essentials is a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”

While writing, you may think that everything you’re including in your story is necessary, but that’s not always the case. One of the most important aspects of editing is trying to view your work from a reader’s perspective. Go through your manuscript and check for any unnecessary sections. Here are some questions that might help you:

Does this part add value to the story?

Is it really necessary to include this?

Is this an essential component of my story?

The best way to do this is to go through your story scene by scene and decide which sections don’t serve a purpose, then just cut them out. Though this guide is about self-editing, there are times when you may want to reach out to someone else and ask for their input. It can be difficult to figure out on your own what works and what doesn’t. You have spent lots of time with your story, so you have probably become emotionally attached to certain scenes or storylines. If you reach out to someone else, they will be reading your story with fresh eyes, so they will be able to tell you if a certain subplot or scene feels unnecessary. 

6. Editing immediately after writing

Once you’ve completed your manuscript, you’ll need a break. Trying to edit your work right after you finish it is nearly impossible because the ideas are still fresh in your mind.

Successful editing requires you to view your writing as objectively as possible. Remember the two sides of your brain? Once you have exhausted your creative brain, you’ll need to take a break before your analytical brain takes over.

Successful authors take some time off before they start editing. How long you should wait differs from person to person, however. While some authors take a few days to a week, others prefer to let a couple of months pass before they start editing their work. This will largely depend on you and how long it will take you to be able to see your story with fresh eyes.

7. Not getting a second opinion

Although the topic of this article is self-editing, it feels important to mention this. Many writers like to self-edit because they don’t want to deal with criticism. However, getting the opinion of a professional proofreader is always a good idea. Criticism can be hard to swallow, but if it’s constructive, the result will be a stronger manuscript. It’s better to accept criticism and optimize your manuscript before publication than to spot a myriad of mistakes after it’s too late to change anything. You’ll be criticized by readers then anyway, and it may not be constructive.

With that said, if hiring an editor is not in your budget, you can always ask an honest friend or a fellow author to have a look at your work and tell you what they think.

Editing can be boring, but it’s imperative to do it if you want to be a good writer. Improving your editing skills will go a long way in propelling your career. So, give editing the time and effort it needs, and don’t take it lightly—your future self will thank you. Our experienced professional editors are ready to help you take your manuscript to the next level.

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