What’s more tiring, frustrating, and confidence-crushing than writing? Self-editing, of course.
Some of us barely tolerate it. Others can’t get away from their cringeworthy first drafts fast enough.
There are many reasons why we don’t like looking over our own work. Early writers especially struggle to reread their writing without wanting to toss their laptops out the window. Often, it’s a time issue. You sit down, you write a blog post — you only have so much time to do all that, and self-editing, if you’re unhappy with the way something’s turned out, could end in a complete rewrite.
So the question is: is self-editing a waste of time? Is it worth the frustration, embarrassment, and pain?
After all, at some point, an editor’s going to pick up what you’ve written and do the hard part for you. Right?
If you’ve ever worked professionally with an editor, you know this isn’t the case. I’ve yet to work with an editor that hasn’t dished out the request that we “proofread our work before submitting it.” Editors are there to fix easy-to-miss mistakes, and in some cases, to help you improve the structure and flow of a piece. They aren’t there to fix errors that SpellCheck could have picked up — and they’re definitely not going to spend the time cleaning up a first draft that you haven’t even bothered to read over at least once.
Is there such thing as wasting valuable time while editing your work? Of course. I’ve caught myself a handful of times fixing and rewriting things that didn’t need altering in the first place. Granted, I’m also a chronic perfectionist, and if I let myself, I’d rewrite every single thing I ever wrote in an unnecessary attempt to make it “better.” If you’re the same way, you have to approach this process with care.
Editing your own work is difficult, and spending too much time pouring over a draft can have its downsides. But this doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, look over your work before you submit it. It doesn’t mean you can’t revise and rewrite on your own after you’ve taken a brief step back from your first draft. It just means that working alone almost never works. Why do you think there’s the occasional typo in these posts? It’s not because I’m lazy. It’s because my own eyes can only catch so many of my own mistakes, no matter how many times I reread a post (which, honestly, rarely exceeds 1.5).
Self-editing will not catch everything. It’s often a struggle to look at your project as a whole body of work, because you’re scrutinizing your own words so carefully. But it will often catch the most obvious errors, like leaving out a word, writing the same word twice, or forgetting a hyperlink. Multiple editors have told me to read my work out loud, and that helps tremendously. Hearing your words, instead of skimming over them, sometimes helps you rephrase things, connect thoughts together, and improve the structure of whatever you’re writing.
So, back to our original question: is self-editing a waste of time? It can be, if you start obsessing over creating the perfect draft. There is no such thing. This is why editors exist, even if you don’t have one yet. It’s literally their job to fix your mistakes and help you polish an imperfect piece. Self-edit at least once, maybe twice if you make changes. But don’t go crazy before passing your work off to someone who (hopefully) gets paid to really look at it in detail.
Don’t have an editor? Most aspiring writers don’t. I have several for my Cheat Sheet articles, but when I write this blog, I’m on my own. All I can do is my best. If I had an extra hour to edit my posts more carefully, I would. But the truth is, I don’t. You learn to turn the things you hate into habits, and you learn to move through these habits as effectively and efficiently as possible. Do I like reading over my work? No. But I do it, because it’s very important to me that you’re getting the highest quality reads possible every single day.
Learn to tolerate it. Someday, you might have an editor there to comb through your draft. But for right now, do the best you can. Even though people on the internet love to point out the smallest flaws in our work for some reason, no one’s judging you THAT severely on whether or not you’re perfect. If they are, well, they’re just not nice. Is an error-free blog post more professional? Of course it is. But come on. We’re only human here.
If you’re struggling with self-editing, this post might help. It has a novel-writing angle, but the tips can really apply to any kind of work, whether it’s fiction or not.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.