The Efficiency Obstacles of Self Editing

EditingA decade ago surveys suggested that 80% of Americans planned to write a novel. The advent of e-publishing has offered many the opportunity to realize the dream. Unfortunately, just because you can self publish doesn’t mean that you should self published. I am not suggesting that content and plot lines should be determined by book agents and publishers. Those two had their shot at it and the result was a miserable decline in profits and menu selections based on misguided commercial success predictions. I believe that self publishing has increased the available reading selection much in the same way the Indie films and Indie music has offered new things we’d never see from Hollywood and never hear on the heavy rotation agenda of Pop radio.

The lack of commercial gatekeepers (i.e. Publishing Houses) is not an invitation to an “anything goes” mentality, nor is it evidence that the rules of proper writing or the mechanics of grammar serve only as an option. In fact, the absence of gatekeepers means an increased responsibility on the part of the author. That implies that an author cannot use “good enough” as the bar when pressing publish. A good story is not good enough and no, readers are not going to look past the violations of writing mechanics simply because the writer has a good idea. Bending and breaking the rules is acceptable for authors with a complete mastery of the craft, the rest of us need to edit, and to edit within the guidelines of proper English grammar. I am not a professional editor. I am not so much giving advice as I am suggesting that every not-yet-ready book published hurts the argument for the future of Indie Publishing. In other words we’re trying to have at least a semi-formal party so please don’t bring box wine and cheez-wiz. And you say…

“I agree and I go through my work several times to ensure it is correct.”

“I’m pretty good at grammar but I’m not holding back my dream just because I can’t afford an editor.”

“Reader’s aren’t that particular and will overlook an occasional error.”

“When I get picked up by a publisher they’ll ensure my work is edited.”

“I am creative so that I like to create my own grammar rules.”

If any of those statements are the reasons for not having a qualified editor then you should not publish your story. Would you take your car to a mechanic who couldn’t afford tools? Would you see a doctor who was “pretty good” at biology but didn’t earn a degree?” Would you live in a house built by a creative contractor who creates his own rules of physics? Would you buy a product from a manufacturer who promised that when his company was purchased they’d ensure the product was functional? Probably not (well hopefully not). So why would you publish something, offer it in exchange for money, and not be able to promise quality?

“Because I’m really good at grammar and I know there aren’t (a lot of) mistakes.”

“Boulder dash” I say (since my discussion with Jenelle I’m making an effort not to cuss.)

There are three solid, factual, proven, and time-tested reasons that you can not self edit regardless of your skills, talent or training. It may work from time to time. There may be a few exceptions, but lets assume that most of us are the rule and not the exception. And being the rule means that we are ruled by our brains. An incredibly efficient organ that makes cognitive life easy at the expense of details. The brain is so efficient that when it comes to the written word, and most things visual, content and context rule over specific detail. Three similar operations are in motion and these operations mean that the writer is the least effective member of the editing team. If the writer gets it correct the first time, all is well, but where there are mistakes the writer will be the last to know. Brain

You can’t un-ring the bell – Gestalt theory, developed in the early part of the last century, sought to explain brain efficiencies through the recognition of patterns. In short, we don’t need to see the entirety of a thing to understand the whole. For example when a person stands in front of an object, the observer does not contemplate whether he is seeing a whole person. The brain fills in the missing parts and we perceive an entire human. Example two – Your favorite movie is just a string of still shots moving at 24 frames per second that is interpreted as motion.

In simpler terms, consider this object. What is it?



You probably answered a “box” or a “cube” – Theoretically correct, but factually wrong. You observed a two dimensional object comprised of hundreds of small circular colored pixels. Your brain did its little act of efficiency and you interrupted a three dimensional object that in the English language we use the sound “cube” to label. When an author reviews her work, she is focused on the content and meaning of that work, not the specifics. Thus the author is far less likely to recognize mistakes than a person will discover who has no expectations. The editor doesn’t see the intentions, he or she sees what exists between the capital letter and the ending punctuation – and all the accepted and agreed upon rules that apply to it.

The Speed Readers – When we first learn to read we observe and stop at each word. We search our memory bank for pronunciation and meaning and then we move on to the next word. At the end of the sentence we consider all the words together to discover the content. With practice and increased vocabulary our reading velocity increases. The familiar words are processed quickly and the only thing that slows us is the presentation of something unfamiliar. As our minds build the most basic constructs of the rules of grammar, the brain relies on those expectations and… being efficient… it no longer requires that we read each word. Most humans read only every third word in a sentence. Like the cube analysis, our eyes take in the whole and the brain uses context and patterns to create the meaning. This is why an author can review several pages, several times, and still find mistakes on future reads. An editor doesn’t care what was intended, he or she is looking at the construct to ensure it follows the rules and makes sense as is, not as we authors dreamt it to be. Even the best writer cannot “un-marry” himself from the work enough to be an effective self-editor.

I know exactly what you mean -The brain is like your mom, dad or closest friend. It is your partner during the comfortable silences. It knows exactly what you mean. It does not require long explanations and it understands you through even the simplest of gestures. Here is the famous Cambridge Study that makes the point:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

You don’t need an editor because you lack the intelligence, you need one because your brain is a highly efficient organic machine. As a writer, you are best served by borrowing another person’s highly efficient organic machine to focus on the words and the structure and to do so on a sentence by sentence basis. Even a great editor won’t catch every mistake, but they’ll catch far more than the writer will alone. And editors are like writers. They get better with practice and experience. So it’s not just a matter of a second set of eyes, it’s a matter of a trained second set of eyes.

If there is a single reason to use an editor than I say that it is this: Your name is going on the book and your legacy is within those pages. Your skills and ability will not be judged on your idea alone, but on the “whole” of the work, and as Henry Ford so aptly said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”

18 replies »

  1. Good post once again, and using an editor, no matter how smart one thinks they are, has always been plain common sense to me. If you are just writing for your blog, or for a website, then fair enough, be a little lax. But when you want to leave a legacy, and what people to pay for your work, then that work has to be as close to perfect as possible, obviously.

    This bit here though: “I am not suggesting that content and plot lines should be determined by book agents and publishers. Those two had their shot at it and the result was a miserable decline in profits and menu selections based on misguided commercial success predictions.” Do you have a post that talks about how book agents and publishers have changed since, and how they now select work today?

    • Glad you enjoyed and I agree common sense but I thought it might be fun to put the “science” behind the sense. And I do think (hope) blogs can be a little more relaxed. I haven’t done a post on the changes in agents and publishers- they are definitely trolling the indie best sellers but if you review agents “wish lists” I’m still seeing a lot of the same ole same ole. It’s notable that the average age of agents (non scientific) seems to have fallen to about 25 years old…which is always an indicator that the pay is low. No biggie except one might need a bit more experience to predict the future of literature…but maybe that’s just an old guy (47) view.

      • I’m glad you put the science to it then! Okay then. Really? Stubborn people aren’t they. “It’s notable that the average age of agents (non scientific) seems to have fallen to about 25 years old…which is always an indicator that the pay is low.” Hahaha I’m 21 so that probably sounds a bit funnier to me than you intended it to be. I agree though, experience is key, but it was the older folks that ignored what they shouldn’t have, and ended up in the mess they’re in now

    • And my direct if not sarcastic guess as to “what” they looking for- I think it goes like this- Upon news of her mother’s murder 23 year old Sara returns home to help solve the case and to clear her father’s name. But once there Sara must confront the secrets of her past and resolve the poor relationship with her father while emotions between her and high school sweetheart resurface and she must deal with her attraction to Tyler, the mysterious but charming stranger who may in fact be the killer. Yep I think that’s about it lol

      • Hahahahaha that is true, my god it really is. Publishers really need to branch out a bit. I still use a Dracula as a prime example that a book that doesn’t need horribly flawed/problematic/emotionally conflicted protagonists to make a good story, and a best seller. I’ll keep updated though to see it you decide to post a more insightful look into agents and publishers today.

      • Hahaha, good stuff I look forward to it. In reply to yr last comment, I actually still spend my Friday nights doing pretty much what I did when I was eleven: playstation, food, and films, although I write more and maintain fitness a little better. Now that’s consistency.

  2. You made a lot of very valid arguments here, and you explained your reasoning well. Thing is, the people who desperately need to hire an editor but won’t aren’t likely to be swayed by common sense. For some, the investment is too cost-prohibitive. For others, it is a matter of laziness and/or arrogance.
    Though I hesitate to admit this, I can’t help but understand. The “gatekeepers” of the publishing world are not what they once were. I see a lot of repetition in what’s churned out lately and quality has become an issue. When agents and publishers grant legitimacy to questionable work (I could give examples, but die-hard fans would likely crucify me) for a quick buck, they invite both a loss of respect and a plague of carelessness.
    That said, every writer should take pride in their work. No matter how much dumbing down is happening around us, our readers deserve something for the investment of their time and money. They deserve, at the very least, what used to be standard in the publishing industry: quality.

    • Well said Elle- so let me ask you a question- as a matter of opinion of course, if a writer cannot afford an editor should they publish or should they instead delay publication and save up for the service? We will assume for the moment that “friends” and “parent” editing qualifies as “unedited” work.

      • That'[ s a really good question. I’m not sure how to answer without committing to an opinion (which I hate to do). How about this:
        Though I do believe there are talented writers out there capable of producing stellar work without an editor, they are few and far between. Even the most gifted author should seek second opinions and have their work read by as many beta readers as possible. No writer can effectively edit their own work for exactly the reasons you gave.
        The end result, of course, will ultimately dictate the effectiveness of any chosen method. The self-published writer unable to make any sales (after the twenty or so obligated friends and family purchases) should take a step back and reevaluate. Plenty of advertised editors aren’t worth the money and, unfortunately, plenty of writers are unable to tell the difference.
        Bottom line: If your self-published work is not selling, it doesn’t matter how much money you invested. Something is wrong. Don’t chalk it up to a fluke. Figure it out, work harder, and CARE.

      • Well good points but I think in today’s market “not selling” may not be related to editing although I concede your point that stepping back and evaluating is critical. I also- and this is opinion which I never mind giving- ” beta readers” are great but do not necessarily count as editors- a writer should employ both and skip the beta for the editor…in my too often given opinion

  3. I’m enjoying all the commentary here and don’t really have anything new to add, but I’m in agreement that there are people who truly will never see their own need for an editor, and that will eventually hurt their sales. Unfortunately, there are great books out there with low sales due to no fault of their own, but rather the glut of the market. Ultimately, it’s up to an author (and hopefully, some honest people around the author) to determine whether the low sales are due to poor quality or not. Nobody needs to be cruel about it. Just truthful.

  4. First, let me just say that I’m quickly becoming a raving fan. I seem to find myself cheering and silently saying “Amen” when I read your posts.

    I think the need for an editor depends on the writer’s goals. If someone is publishing for the sense of achievement and the personal fulfillment of writing a complete work (article, short story, novella, novel, whatever) and isn’t aiming for commercial success, maybe it’s OK to find an alternative to a professional editor. But for a writer looking for some degree of commercial success, the notion of “I can’t afford an editor” is akin to saying “I want to lose 50 pounds but don’t have time to exercise.” Yes, it can probably be done, but you sure are doing it the hard way — and in a way that significantly diminishes the odds of reaching your goal. Writers with serious commercial goals understand that using a professional editor is a cost of doing business. Affordable editors with a passion for working with indie talent and who understand their clients’ budget limitations are out there.

    Great topics, great writing, great blog!

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts and of course thanks for adding to the conversation. I try to offer honest insight- without trying to offend or ruin anyone’s passion for being a part of a challenging Indie Movement.

  5. Even though I already knew the science of how your brain fills in the details, your blog article is excellent. I have many beta-readers, two of them (former) editors who go over my work for free because they like my books. I’m lucky that way, because I know that, no matter how much I’ve progressed in self-editing, most of the time I read what I think I wrote, not what’s on the page…

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