Getting Over Over-Editing

August 31, 2021 § 11 Comments

I love being an editor. I love pointing out craft fixes that immediately make this book and all an author’s subsequent writing better. I love pointing out major structural overhauls…and inspiring them to do that work. Most of all, I love how analyzing other writers’ work helps me improve my own.

How did I get to be an editor? After an MFA and years of tidying friends’ work for free, I hung up my shingle and congratulations me, I’m in business. While there are certificate programs for copyeditors and online courses for story and structure editors, we’re not like therapists or dentists. There’s no licensing to give us permission—and no regulatory board to make sure we’re honest and competent.

I’ve heard from plenty of authors who’ve had bad experiences with professional editors or writing coaches. The scammed/mistreated/poorly edited authors aren’t usually willing to speak publicly, and I don’t blame them for being embarrassed or intimidated. But plenty of authors have told me privately about money lost and feelings bruised. Since I can’t out specific people (hearsay), I’ll tell you my own editing sins—and how to avoid them as a client.

Overwhelm. Early in my editing career, I tried to fix every single thing that could possibly help a manuscript. Pages went back crawling with red ink and hundreds of margin comments. No no no, Previous Me! Editors should do one stage at a time. Feedback on commas comes after story and structure. In a developmental edit, I’ll point out some repeated sentence-level mistakes for the author to fix globally, but it’s my job to limit the amount of editing to what an author can handle in one or two more drafts.

Don’t let this happen to you. Know the difference between developmental editing, line editing, copyediting and proofreading. Be honest with yourself about what your work needs, and specific with the editor. It’s OK to say, “I only need feedback on the story,” or “What I really need help with is making my sentences stronger.” The editor may say your work needs a different level of editing, and you’ll be able to decide if you agree.

Over-criticizing. Editors don’t just point out what’s wrong; they reaffirm what the author is already doing beautifully and inspire them to build on those strengths. Unless you’ve hired a straight copyedit or proofread, your editor should recognize moments like “this sentence is great” or “the way you handle this theme works well because X.” Now, my own editorial cheerleading balances out comments like “WHY DOES SHE GO BACK SHE KNOWS HE’S TERRIBLE HUGE LOGIC ISSUE HERE!!!” but I was a lot worse at that balance ten years ago.

Don’t let this happen to you. Get a free or paid sample edit. Look for the editor’s tone—how does it make you feel? If your sense is, “Wow, I didn’t see that and boy is fixing it going to help!” this might be your editor. If you feel discouraged beyond that initial “Crap, there’s more to do than I thought…” (which is very normal!), think about whether this editor is the right fit. Try applying fixes they suggest in the sample to your whole book, and see if that feels like improvement.

Over-ruling. There’s grammar, and there’s writing in your natural voice with consistent word patterns that make sense for the character, situation and setting. “Rules” against run-ons, comma splices and ending sentences with prepositions can help readers smoothly navigate your prose, or they can make your natural voice sound stilted and prim. Finding my own barometer for voice—“Like you’d tell a friend, but better”—saved myself and my clients hours of analyzing commas and awkwardly reframing sentences. “Correct” is only useful when a grammatical convention serves the book.

Don’t let this happen to you. Learn enough grammar and punctuation so that when you violate a convention, you’re doing it on purpose. Identify key elements of your own voice and amplify those as you gain confidence in your work. If an editor strips away your phrasing in the name of “correctness,” you’ll know it’s happening and be ready to push back.

Over-scheduling. Yeah, I still suck at this one. I’m often late returning manuscripts, compensating for my guilt by trying to do an extra-good editing job. I’ve learned techniques to speed up line editing, make margin commenting faster, and communicate better when I’m running behind (most clients aren’t mad, they just want to know what’s happening!), but I could still allow myself more cushion time.

Don’t let this happen to you. It’s OK to nudge your editor! More than once, even! Email a week or so before the deadline to ask if they’re on schedule, giving them an opening to tell you up front if they’re not. Let them know if you have a planned retreat, time off work, or a deadline.

My clients have given me grace for my mistakes, and I’m honored to be a small part of their journey to publication. Improving author communication, setting clear expectations, and educating myself to deliver useful, encouraging and thorough editing are daily practices, ones that serve what truly feels like my life’s work. I’m grateful to be able to do it.


Want to make your writing even better? Join Allison K Williams for the webinar Beautiful Beginnings Brilliant Endings, hosted by Creative Nonfiction August 24th (yes, there’s a replay). Sign up now!

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§ 11 Responses to Getting Over Over-Editing

  • […] Getting Over Over-Editing […]

  • Thank you, Allison, for your candor. I have made all these mistakes (and more), but I have also caught specific errors that writers’ have been grateful to receive. But sometimes I have caught glaring errors or grammatical offenses that writers do not address in later drafts so that I eventually understood they wanted a reader rather than an editor. It’s wise to know up front if you actually want help to improve or simple support on your writing journey.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Ahhh so true. Not everyone’s goal is “the best prose I can get to,” and I’m no longer surprised by those I meet who want to “have written” a book rather than write a book.

  • kperrymn says:

    Thanks for this helpful info.

  • Thanks Allison for the info.

  • henhouselady says:

    This info is very helpful. It will come in handy down the road.

  • Gita Brown says:

    Thanks for this article; especially the part about only biting off what you can chew at one time. Sometimes it seems overwhelming so it’s good to know how to handle editing my memoir ms with one or two things in mind at a time.

    Also–your comment about over-criticizing is on point! It reminds me of when I was a newbie teacher just out of college conservatory in classical clarinet. omg I tried to fix every little error in my student’s playing and drove them nuts. Thankfully I realized I was only making matters worse and was able to adjust. Something about honing in on the strengths of an artist tends to make their unique voice shine; from that place making corrections is more of a minor tweak, rather than trying to engineer perfection by eliminating errors. Always a delicate dance!

    Thanks Again!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Right?!? It’s so hard to narrow down to “what can this student actually work on right now that will help the most.” Glad this resonated for you!

  • stacyeholden says:

    You have been a LARGE part of my own journey! Thank you, Allison!

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