On editing and self-editing

Edit Ruthlessly

Edit Ruthlessly (Photo credit: Dan Patterson)

My husband and I are redoing our front yard to convert from high to low water use. Being situated in the alluvial zone at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, our little property is “blessed” with an abundance of rocks – in all sizes. Hence our brilliant idea: Do a rock garden.

So I’ve been spending a little time out there several days a week placing rocks to hold and frame the dirt for planting succulents. I place those rocks very carefully. The effect I’m looking for is not exactly a natural arrangement, but a visually interesting and attractive one. Sometimes I go out in the morning and rearrange some of the rocks I placed the day before – or the ones I placed several days ago. Sometimes I find myself sitting inside looking out the front window and thinking, no… that one would be better a little bit to the right, or, yes… but I’m going to need a bigger one right about there to balance that other little grouping…

Eventually it dawned on me: I’m editing the rocks.

Then there’s the Christmas tree. We have a string of little white lights and an eclectic assortment of ornaments. Every year it takes me a couple of hours to decorate the tree to something approaching visual perfection  – and then I spend the rest of the holiday season tweaking the lights and rearranging the ornaments to better balance the sizes and the colors, and to fill those annoying little “holes” that somehow weren’t apparent when I finished the original arrangement. Sometimes I’m sure I move ornaments to fill holes that were created by moving ornaments to fill other holes…

Yes, you got it. I edit the Christmas tree.

I think I’m a natural born editor.

Given that I’ve been writing things of one kind or another for most of my life, it’s hardly surprising that I edit my own writing. In fact, I do so constantly. Sometimes it feels like I can’t leave any two previously written words together. It also probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have become, here in my middle years, a professional editor – for scientific texts. I do scientific texts because I have a background in science that gives me added credibility for that task, but I could easily edit other things. The only thing remotely remarkable about my being an editor, really, is that it took me so long to come around to it.

After giving the matter some thought, I’ve concluded there are three basic requirements for being a good editor (of the text variety).

  1. An outstanding command of the language.
  2. The kind of patient and meticulous nature that makes giving “attention to detail” a foregone conclusion.
  3. A clear concept of what the final product ought to look like.

Obviously I wasn’t born with the first. I must have acquired it, although I do think a certain amount of talent must have been involved because it certainly required very little effort on my part. The second, I was apparently born with – in spades.  The third has always seemed pretty obvious to me and not particularly difficult to achieve. My method of achieving it can be summed up in three words:  Read good examples. (Of course, if your client has a manual or style sheet he or she wants you to use, it goes without saying that you use the manual or style sheet.)

It is a little bit surprising that it has taken me until fairly recently to really appreciate the need to have someone else edit my writing.  Well, maybe it’s not that surprising. When I started writing scientific papers, after all, I always edited myself – over and over – both before and after my thesis advisor had put in his two cents’ worth.  And when the proofs came back from the journal, I never noticed that any changes had been made to what I’d sent. There might have been some that I didn’t notice of course, but basically I think I wrote (and self-edited) well enough that my work didn’t need a whole lot of editing.

In other words, being that I’m a natural born editor, I think I might be forgiven for getting the impression that it was the writer’s job to get it right in the first place.

The trouble with this concept is, you can’t.

I mean, you can’t reliably get it completely right in the first place.  Not when you’re writing the tens of thousands of words – the dozens or hundreds of pages – that go into something the length of a book. The average essay or scientific paper is only a few pages or a few thousand words.  A writer who happens to be a pretty good editor has a fighting chance of catching all the errors in something that length, but not in a book.

Many people have noticed that we all tend to have trouble seeing our own mistakes on the page (or the screen.) You know what you wrote, after all. The fact that you didn’t actually write what you know you wrote can be really quite shocking when someone finally points it out to you. It can be positively mortifying – especially if you’re an editor, believe me.

Even when it comes to other people’s writing, there are certain kinds of errors that we have trouble seeing. The absence of small common words where a line is broken, for example, or the same word repeated at the end of one line and the beginning of the next.

Why are we error prone in this particular way?

Well, it obviously has something to do with expectations.  But I think it also has something to do with how our brains work. The brain is famous for filling in gaps in our perceptions to create the impression of a seamless and coherent world. Studies have shown that our visual systems only take samples of what’s out there. The fact that our eyes are constantly moving and taking samples, together with the vast amount of experience our brains have with interpreting those samples, combine to give us the impression that our minds simply look out through the windows of our eyes and see the world as it is.

Did you know that the design of the eye is such that the image cast by the lens on the retina is inverted, top to bottom, and left to right? As far as the eye is concerned, objects appear to fall up. Why doesn’t it look as if objects fall up?  Because, at a very early age, your brain learned to turn the images around.  It’s an amazing thing, the brain – quite miraculous. Right up to the point where that miracle prevents us from being able to see our own mistakes.

So, even though I’m an editor, I know that I still need an editor. When it comes time to get my manuscript ready for publication, I know I’m going to have to hire one. (And that’s not just me trying to promote my own profession.)

Leave a comment


  1. Why is it we can spot errors in other’s work, but not in our own. It makes for a sad and lonely life in front of the computer. “Help me, help me, help me . . . there must be an error on this page! There always is!”

  2. When I publish a post, almost each day, I schedule it first and then check it through the preview button. Seeing it as others see it is so very different. I almost always find a mistake in the first two paragraphs. It is, usually, a word left out or I have changed tenses in a sentence. Elementary stuff, but there it is. We have to edit.

    • Absolutely. And I know what you mean. Being a compulsive editor, I actually write my posts in Word where I can re-read and edit them, then cut and paste them into the blog. And STILL I find mistakes. I’m almost afraid to look.

      • I usually write my blog in the morning or very early evening and schedule it for 10pm. That way I get to look at exactly how it previews and edit it before anyone else gets to look at it.

  3. If the day comes when one of my manuscripts is “ready” to publish, I will certainly hire an editor for a thorough go-through. Not only do our brains normally “fill in the gaps,” but when we live with a work for months and years, that behavior is intensified. Some people go it alone and self-edit, but that’s not a course I would recommend.

    • Yeah, I know. I’ve seen some self-published works that were so riddled with errors that I found myself wondering, didn’t the author review at it at ALL? Even books from major publishers are more likely to contain errors than they used to be. I’m just so embarrassed by finding an error in something I wrote, I couldn’t bear to have something of mine out there that was less than the very best I could make it.

  4. Thank you for singing the praises of the editor. I couldn’t agree more that those who both write and edit are wise not to serve as their own editors.

    I like reading work aloud–my own and others–as a step in the editing process. In addition to catching clunky constructions, it often forces the eye to see that there there is an extra word in a sentence. 🙂

    • You’re right, Audrey, about reading your own work aloud as a way to spot errors you didn’t see before. (I’ve found some dooseys that way.) I’m not sure why it works. Maybe it’s because the brain’s reading-aloud-mode is different from its silent reading mode. I “say” the words in my head even when I read silently, or at least I think I do, but maybe it makes a difference if I’m going to actually physically enunciate each word. Maybe that means I have to slow down and really LOOK at them.

  5. Kourtney Heintz

     /  February 27, 2013

    It’s funny I have an editing gap where I type your and you’re in the wrong place but see the correct one even though it’s wrong on the page. I can’t imagine not having an editor and a copy editor. It just makes sense. 🙂

    • My buggaboo is it’s versus its. I tend to always put the apostrophe in. I have too keep stopping and asking myself – is that the possessive? And still I find instances where I must have forgotten to ask that question.

      • Kourtney Heintz

         /  April 25, 2013

        LOL. Such weird ticks. And such basic mistakes. Reminds me I’m always learning and I’m never going to not need editing. 😉

  6. And I just noticed “too” where it should have been “to” in what I just wrote! Arrggh! Usually I think I’m more likely to write “to” when I meant “too.” My brain must be over-correcting today…

  7. Enjoyed reading this! As someone who uploaded seven different versions of a self-published book to CreateSpace on Amazon, I know all too well about errors and editing. Apparently, I don’t know enough and am still learning to whittle down, “show, don’t tell,” and use active voice.

  8. Well congratulations on having gotten to that uploading stage at all. Even if the ms turned out to need editing. In a sense, they’re never really “done.” At some point you just have to let them go.

  9. Good point. I think of writing as a process that could go on and on and on with a little tweak here and a little tweak there. Meanwhile, the writer has missed the moment when her work might be best received.


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