How Do You Know When To Stop Self-Editing and Start Publishing?

GUEST POST from
Desiree Villena, writer, Reedsy

The following guest post comes to us from Desiree Villena, a writer with Reedsy. She describes Reedsy as a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. Desiree is very passionate about helping independent authors reach their dreams. She enjoys reading and writing short stories in her spare time.

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With NaNoWriMo in our rearview mirrors, you might be breathing a sigh of relief and giving yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. But it’s not quite time yet to break out the champagne. Now that November is behind you, you’ll probably look again at your manuscript and start thinking about the part of the writing process that every author dreads: the edit.

At a traditional publishing house, a book will always go through multiple rounds of edits before publication. If you’re self-publishing, however, you have a few choices at hand. You can either: 

  1. Not edit 
  2. Conduct a self-edit 
  3. Get a professional edit 

The correct answer, of course, is B) and then C)! A professional edit is vital if you want to ensure that your book is structurally sound, readable, clear, and polished. 

However, before you can even think about handing your manuscript over to a professional editor, you should always first edit it yourself — and this is where a lot of authors stumble. As you probably already know, it’s all too easy to wind up falling into the trap of editing too much.

So how do you know when to stop editing and start thinking about the next step of publishing? Following are five classic warning signs of over-editing that you should watch out for.

1. When it’s been more than two years

Granted, it’s hard to box the editing process into the strict confines of a timeframe. Since a lot of people wonder about this, however, it may be helpful to know that a book will need several editing rounds, which generally take (on average) several months in total.

But this truly depends on the book and the person. Most professional editors will tell you that editing takes however long the story needs. For instance, some books are longer than others and will need more time to thoroughly take apart. (Ahem, Game of Thrones). Other writers also edit slower than their peers, or take lengthy breaks in between the editing rounds so as to view their story with fresh eyes each time.

With all of that said, an entire year purely devoted to editing would probably raise a few eyebrows — and two years is the line at which you should really put down your red pen. To put that into perspective, that’s 730 days: more time than many writers spend writing a book! 

“What exactly is holding you back
from moving on to the
next part of publication?

If you’ve held onto a manuscript for that long, it might be worth it to press pause for a moment. Ask yourself what exactly is holding you back from moving on to the next part of publication (whether that’s a query letter if you plan to publish traditionally, or a book cover design if you’re self-publishing). Is it a psychological block that’s stopping you from showing it to the rest of the world, perhaps? That’s a completely different problem from that of fixing a manuscript — and one that’s worth resolving, as your story deserves to be published.

2. When you’re sick of reading your own work

All writers are, to some degree, perfectionists. If they spot a flaw in a paragraph, they’ll likely want to tinker with it — and keep tinkering it until the writing is flawless.

But here’s the catch-22: since “flawless” is unfortunately a wholly subjective standard, there’s a good chance that you’ll continue “fixing” your work until the words blur and you can’t tell “bad” from “sad.” This is often the point where you end up hating the sight of your own writing.

To start loathing the
very thing you created
isn’t the happy ending
that anyone wants.”

If you feel like that about your story because you’ve read it too many times, then that’s probably another sign to let go. To start loathing the very thing you created isn’t the happy ending that anyone wants for you — what’s more, you needn’t be a prisoner of your own work. Instead of reading your story for the millionth time, why not ask someone else to read it for the first time (and perhaps give you their thoughts on it)? That leads me to my next point.

3. When you can share your story with other people without embarrassment

I hate to break it to you, but a book is meant to be read — and not just by you! Ideally, many people around the world will one day be able to see your book on the bookshelves, pick it up, and open it to its first page. With that in mind, try to edit your manuscript to the point where you can share it with other people without embarrassment.

Start with your closest confidantes, whether that’s your partner, your family, or a trusted writing buddy. Ask them to read your book and don’t just watch them to see what their reactions are — test what your own reactions to this experiment are. If you pass that test without the faintest blush, then see if you can graduate onto a wider circle of people (perhaps your writing group or acquaintances at work). You needn’t necessarily ask for their thoughts on your book. The goal of this exercise is simply to see if you’re relaxed about handing your story to them.

If you can do so feeling embarrassed, then congratulations! You’ll know that you’ve reached a point where you’re genuinely proud of the work that you’ve produced.

4. When you find yourself changing
“a” to “the” — and then back again

In other words: when the changes you find yourself making to your story aren’t meaningful anymore. 

When you start your self-edit, you’ll probably be trying to fix the “big picture” problems in your story: broad characterization problems to underlying structural issues and wonky plot holes. Then you’ll likely move onto your sentence-level errors. Punctuation mistakes? Typos? Factual inconsistencies, from incorrect dates to conflicting descriptions of characters? Close proofreading to catch the typos that you might’ve made? That’s all fair game. 

But what if you notice that you’re simply tweaking “a” to “the,” or adding throwaway commas here and there? That kind of change won’t impact your story meaningfully. If you find yourself doing that, it’s also probably time to put down your pen.

How do I know what’s meaningful and what’s not? If you’re asking that right now, then let’s turn to my fifth and final point.

5. When a professional editor tells you to stop

If you’re still unsure about whether or not your manuscript truly deserves to move on, then it’s time for professional help. In addition to a keen eye, a professional editor will have decades of experience on their side. More importantly, you can surely rely on them to look at your manuscript and tell you exactly what does — and doesn’t — need fixing. (Hiring a good editor who you can actually trust is a bit trickier. You can start here at TLC Book Design, and you can also always ask around on writer’s circles on Facebook or forums for more opinions.)

“Your book does deserve
to see the light of day.

However you decide to move forward, just remember that your book does deserve to see the light of day. You’ve gotten this far, after all! Having a complete manuscript in your hands is more than a lot of would-be authors can say for themselves. Have the trust in yourself and your story to close the book on editing — and take the next step towards actual publication.  

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We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with self-editing, working with an editor, and how easy or difficult it was to let go of your manuscript to move to the next step in publishing. Please share in the comments!

Many blessings,
Tami