Is it possible to edit your own work?

It is amazing how quickly a discussion can become an argument.

A few days ago I made the mistake of commenting on an internet article. I know, I know – I should have thought. But it was harmless enough – what one piece of advice would you give to somebody considering self-publishing. My tuppen’orth was to wait and write another novel first. My mistake was to fail to check the box marked ‘don’t email me when anyone replies’. For the last half-week I have been spammed into oblivion. If anyone’s been looking for me I’ve been pinned beneath my inbox, struggling for breath.

Anyway, the issue that really sparked dissent, dissolution and disaster was whether an external editor is essential or if a writer can successfully proof-read their own work. Rather than wading into internet hell I thought I’d examine the question at more length here.

Let’s start at the beginning. There is more than one type of editing, and the terms are not used equally by all. Editing, basically, is a way of finding and killing errors; but what is an error? At one end of the scale we have typos, mistaken word-choices, confusing sentences and grammar-based boo-boos. At the other we have plot-arcs, roads not travelled, possibilities unexplored. If you are ever considering paying for an editing service then you need to know just what you’re paying for – and what you’ll get out of it at the end.

But do you have to pay? Surely it’s possible to do this on your own. After all, who knows what you’re trying to achieve better than yourself?

Well, yes – but that’s kinda the problem.

There are techniques for self-editing. Reading the story aloud is a good one because the brain works slightly differently when reading. It helps highlight errors of rhythm, for finding sentences that lack that magical sense of flow, and will aid the seek-and-destroy of those pesky typos. You can also record yourself and – hey presto – instant audiobook.

Another technique that I often come across is to read your work backwards. Doing this removes your sense of story and allows you – again – to find typos that you’ve skimmed over on multiple drafts.

But these methods, and others, are really only focussed on finding small errors: on improving the actual writing without addressing the meat of the story. And this is where an external reader is not only useful but – dare I say – essential.

Believe me when I tell you that you, the writer, are in the worst possible position to view your novel objectively. You’ve been living with that story, with its characters, for months, for years. You’re too close. It’s remarkable – in Night Shift I had my protagonist behaving totally out of character (breaking into a room when he had no real cause) – and I never realised that it was wrong. That’s only one example; I could give you many more. The human brain is unsurpassed in its ability to overlook the bleedin’ obvious.

So: it is possible to successfully proofread your own work. But structural changes, plot-holes and issues of character – for those you need an external opinion.

The internet is littered with editorial services and literary consultancies. You can pay… I don’t know, just about anything. If you’re considering going down this route, start off by thinking just what sort of edit you’re after and what you’re going to get for your money. But what hope for the rest of us? Those who can’t afford or are otherwise reluctant to shell out a nice wadge of cash?

The best advice I can give to you is to join up with other writers to form a mutual critique group. I’ve written on this before – cast your eyes over this. But you can go further. Or less far. There are loads of internet corners for writers. If you can’t afford professional editing then my advice is to do a manuscript exchange with other people in your position. Find a forum and ask. It’s not that hard. All it costs is the time it takes to read (and comment on) someone else’s work.

But – caveat! – the best editors are people you know. My parents, for example, proof-read my early work. They are excellent – truly excellent – at sniffing out poor writing, typos and errors. They are less good at pointing out plot-holes and deeper issues. Once you know someone’s proclivities you can take them into account and use different readers for different functions. Always get more than one opinion.

This is going on a bit. I could write a lot more. But, to summarise…

Is it possible to edit your own work? Yes, if your aim is to kill all technical errors. But if you want to make your story as good a it can possibly be then you need an outside perspective. Whether that’s paid for or you go a-huntin’ for freebies is up to you.

2 thoughts on “Is it possible to edit your own work?

    • Oh, it wasn’t me – just a debate between those who insisted that an author needs a paid editor and those who said they could do it themselves. It’s amazing how these things can escalate, even though there’s rarely a definitive one-size-fits-all answer


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