Five Signs That You Might Be Over-Editing Your Work
Editing is a really important part of the writing process – and that’s why we’re in the middle of a four-week series on it. 😉
However … it’s possible to over-edit. And, if you’re at the editing stage of a project right now, you might be wondering when to stop rewriting and tweaking.
As I explained in the first post in this series, How Much Time Should You Spend Drafting vs Editing?, it can be tricky to find the right balance. In general:
- Non-fiction doesn’t require so much editing as fiction.
- Shorter pieces don’t require so much editing as long ones.
- The more preparation you did, the less editing you’ll need to do.
- The more experienced you are, the less editing you’ll need to do (probably).
But it can be hard to resist the urge to get your project just right – especially if it’s something long, and particularly if it’s something that you need to submit (to agents, editors, or as part of an academic degree).
How do you know when to put the red pen down?
Here are five signs to watch out for:
#1: You’ve Been Working on This One Piece for Way Too Long
Have you been plodding away with your magnum opus for eight years now? Have you been working on this one blog post for a month? “Way too long” is pretty subjective, but you probably have a good sense of how it feels.
It’s time to move on. Either ditch the project altogether – or set yourself a time limit to finish it.
If you’re not sure whether to ditch it or stick with it, check out When to Give Up On Your Work-in-Progress (and When to Keep Going).
#2: You’ve Gone Through More Than Three Rounds of Edits
If you’re working on a major project, like a novel or non-fiction book, you may well find the first draft needs serious work.
However, three major rounds of edits is probably plenty. In practice, this probably looks something like:
- First draft
- Editing #1: Big picture revision, then out to beta readers / editor
- Editing #2: More detailed revision, incorporating feedback
- Editing #3: Sentence-by-sentence tweaks and proofreading (you might well separate these into two steps)
If you’re going through your novel or book again and again and again, then it’s time to stop. If you’re worried about missing typos, hire a proofreader. If you’re not sure if it’s “good enough”, then ask a bunch of friends, blog readers, or writing group companions to read it and give you their honest opinion.
For a structured way to organise your rewriting and editing, check out Your Two-Year Plan for Writing, Editing and Publishing Your Novel (However Busy You Are).
#3: You’re Obsessing Over Tiny Details
It’s easy to use editing as an excuse to delay publishing your work – especially when the piece you’ve written is really important to you.
Some writers get caught up in tiny details, like constantly tweaking subheadings or comma placement. Obviously you want to avoid typos and keep things consistent – but give yourself a time limit, or hire someone to help.
Keep in mind that the standards for, say, a blog post aren’t so high as the standards for, say, a literary novel. You can always edit a post after publishing it, if you do find a mistake, or you can publish an update or a new version if you want to make major additions.
#4: You Keep Changing Your Mind
Have you heavily revised your work, only to wonder if you should’ve gone in a different direction altogether? If you can’t make up your mind, or if you keep thinking about changing things back, then stop.
You might have gathered so much feedback – either from your own reading and re-reading of your work, or from beta-readers or blog readers – that you just don’t know what to do.
Pick the direction that feels most right for your story or your piece of writing, and go with it. Of course there’ll be other possibilities –probably countless ones! If you really can’t decide, toss a coin.
#5: You’re Not Sure if You’re Improving Your Work … or Making it Worse
Too much editing can start to harm your project, and your writing life in general. That happens when:
- You spend all your time tweaking words and going back other what you’ve already done, rather than ever writing something new.
- You start changing things which originally seemed fine, because you’re beginning to doubt them.
- You edit out all the voice and energy of your work – it’s possible to over polish.
Of course, editing is a hugely important stage of the writing process – and the quality of the finished piece matters. If you never finish and publish, though, no-one’s ever going to benefit from your words.
If you feel like you might be over editing, or if you’ve been editing your current project for months or even years, then:
- Give yourself a time limit to finish.
- Get outside help: beta-readers, an editor, or a proofreader (depending what stage of editing you’re at).
- Take a break from it: you’ll come back with more perspective on your work.
At some point, you need to let go — because otherwise, your work will never really be complete. Set yourself a deadline, if that helps you, then finish your edits and move on to submitting or publishing your work, so that you can free up your writing time and energy for something new.
If you’ve missed any of the previous pieces in the series, you can find them here.
#1: How Much Time Should You Spend Drafting vs Editing? [blog post]
#2: Two Ways to Make Editing Your Own Work Much Easier [newsletter]
#3: Ten Sentence-Level Mistakes to Watch Out for When Editing Your Fiction [With Examples] [blog post]
#4: How to Get and Incorporate Other People’s Feedback When Editing Your Work [newsletter]
In Thursday’s newsletter, we’ll be looking at a fiction-specific editing issue: dialogue tags. Remember to sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss that.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
Can You Call Yourself a “Writer” if You’re Not Currently Writing?
The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.
Proofreading and editing is very important to content. mistake in content creates a bad impression. Thanks for sharing this information
As a writer and an editor, I can say with some confidence that editing your own work is not enough. Sure, you go through it until you are personally satisfied. Then you hand it over to another professional, who will invariably come across things you’ve missed. Beta readers and the like are useful, but they can never replace a ‘proper’ editor. The cost of one is part of being professional rather than a dabbler.
Yes, I’m always amazed at what my editor finds, even when I’ve been over and over a manuscript! I think having an editor is, as you say, an essential part of being a professional author — and if you’re self-publishing, that means paying someone to do it. But I also completely understand that some authors aren’t yet at that stage and may want to go down a different route. I’ve found workshop groups and beta readers hugely helpful in the development of my own writing, too.