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.

Ever thought being an editor could be your life’s work, or even a pleasant sideline? Want to be a better editor or better at the business? Join me for a three-webinar series, Build Your Developmental Editing Business, beginning October 20th.

Writing Inside in the Daytime

April 24, 2019 § 17 Comments

zz-osheaBy Heather O’Shea

When I moved to Florida, one of my goals was to avoid getting a “real” job. I wanted to cobble together a life and an income that moved the act of writing from the fringes of my life to the center. Then I spent about seven months with more than enough time. So much time, in fact, that I had plenty left over to worry about money. Instead of writing essays, I’d develop elaborate business plans, trying to figure out how to support myself in the manner to which I’d become accustomed.

During that time, I thought a lot about my novel. I sent a few things out. I read and re-read Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer and Ellen Karsh’s The Only Grant Writing Book You’ll Ever Need.  Notice the verb that’s missing from those sentences. Then one day I picked up a copy of a local magazine. I was at a swanky Fidelity office in one of the swankier parts of my swanky new town, trying to open an account to house my 401k from my old teaching job. I flipped through beautiful pages, found myself interested in the stories, seriously considered “accidentally” taking the magazine with me when we left. And then I saw the sidebar that said they were looking for writers and creative people. “This,” I said to my husband. “This.”

We started hunting for a store where we could buy the magazine but kept striking out. Then one day as we drove down the main drag, I saw the sign on the building. “Stop,” I told Fred. “They’re open.” I rang the bell. A friendly woman gave me an armful of back issues and the email address of the owner. In my third interview, we debated the use of the Oxford comma. I knew it was a good sign.

And that’s how I surprised myself by becoming the managing editor of a magazine. Now I spend my days reading, writing copy, editing copy, hunting for story ideas, interacting with writers, and working with delightful colleagues who share my love for all things made of the alphabet.

It’s making me a better writer. It’s making me understand what I missed during all those years when I eschewed journalism in favor of creative writing. It’s making me wonder why that dichotomy even exists, or why it existed so clearly for me as a teenager and young woman.

During the week, I’m back to my old work-day habit of shaking myself out of bed at five a.m., a discipline I couldn’t maintain when I had all the time in the world. I’m remembering how much I love writing in a dark house and being awake for that moment when the emptiness outside the window begins to fill with the first outlines of things.

On the weekends, you just might find me writing outside on the lanai. That’s where I was last Saturday when the wood storks came. The flash of a black-tipped wing made me look up, and I watched as the pair of them bounced across my back yard, gaining a little height and momentum with each hop, until the air finally caught them, and they flew.

Heather O’Shea is the managing editor of Vero Beach Magazine. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Daily Good, the Notre Dame ReviewBlue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review. She believes that if your goals concerning your writing life are sufficiently flexible, you just might surprise yourself by achieving them.



Hey Y’All: Notice for a Southern Review Resident Scholar

October 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

The Southern Review announces an opening for a Postdoctoral Researcher (The Southern Review Resident Scholar). This is a two-year, non-renewable twelve-month appointment and carries a salary of $32,000 and benefits (pending final administrative approval). Preferred start date is August 1, 2009. Founded in 1935 by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, The Southern Review is published four times a year on the campus of Louisiana State University. For more information, please check The Southern Review website at

Required Qualifications: M.F.A., Ph.D. or equivalent; one year editorial experience on the staff of an established literary journal; ability to demonstrate the following: editorial expertise with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; a broad knowledge of literature, especially contemporary; basic computer skills; a solid understanding of the publishing, especially small presses and literary magazines. Responsibilities: commits 20 hours per week to editorial duties at The Southern Review; teaches one class per regular semester in the English Department (courses assigned by departmental need and/or Fellow’s expertise).

An offer of employment is contingent on a satisfactory pre-employment background check. Application deadline is December 1, 2008 or until a candidate is selected. Applications should include a letter of application, CV (including e-mail address), one-page statement of editorial philosophy, a creative writing sample (5000 words of fiction or creative nonfiction or 10 pages of poetry), and three letters of recommendation, at least one of which should address the candidate’s abilities as a teacher. Applications should be sent to the following address:

The Southern Review Resident Scholar Search Committee
The Old President’s House
Louisiana State University
Ref: #029816
Baton Rouge, LA 70803


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