Why you’re (probably) incapable of editing your own book (and so is everyone else)

book editing, proofreading, manuscript editing

Last week I went through my manuscript one last time and sent it out to beta readers; I’d already gone through it a dozen times, and I thought it was pretty clean. I assumed there’d be a handful of typos (there always are), and that the beta readers would catch them (they usually do).

However, while usually I had one or two fellow authors check my books for typos and grammatical mistakes, this time I had several dozen read through it: including at least one professional proofreader.

And, not to brag, but since I’m working on my PhD in Literature and have worked as a book editor, I’m pretty damn good at catching mistakes myself.

So I was a little unprepared for the amount of mistakes caught. First it was a dozen; then another 20.

Then another 20.

And those were just the early, casual readers.

Now I’ve got two PDF’s, from two different editors who were more thorough, and it looks like there are about a hundred comments.

Not all of them are typos; some are grammatical rules that I broke on purpose.

But there are also a lot of mistakes.

Simple stuff, like of instead of off.

Or harder stuff, like using luggage carousal (a noisy, drunken feast) when I meant carousel (the thing that goes around).

I spelled my own characters’ names wrong – or used the wrong character when I meant another one. I misspelled some of the cities and locations in the book.

And there are lots of places where an “and” is missing, which I think is partly my writing style but there should still be one.

Altogether, I’m starting to feel pretty embarrassed I let anyone read it with so many mistakes. But that just goes to show you… you can’t edit your own work.

Your brain fills in the gaps, because you know what you meant.

And most readers will fill in the gaps too, if they can, for about half the stuff that’s wrong. But if you make mistakes that confuses them so that they can’t follow the story, they’ll stop reading.

And that’s unacceptable.

I’m not saying you have to pay for editing…

I’m just saying, firstly, that you’ll probably never catch everything in your own writing, even if you’re a genius (or a grammar nazi).

And secondly, that casual readers, or your friends and family, or even other authors, probably won’t catch everything either.

That’s important.

It’s worth being aware of.

It means you need to be twice as diligent, and get the book out to as many beta readers as possible if you don’t plan on hiring an editor.

Previously, I’ve made offers like “I’ll pay $5 for every typo you catch”… because I figured I’d have less than 20 and that would still be very cheap compared to professional editing. But that can be risky if they actually find 100 and you aren’t prepared to pay that much.

What to do about it?

If you don’t have a big budget for editing, I’d consider doing this:

Hire someone to edit the first 10,000 words, and do a thorough edit.

That way at least you’ll know how clean, or dirty, your manuscript is. I think it’s OK to publish with roughly one typo per 10,000 words (though a lot of people will disagree with me… of course you want it to be clean, but the truth is even if you pay for professional editing, they will probably miss a few things).

But if you pay for 10,000 words and they catch dozens of typos just in that section, the rest of the book probably has just as many – which means, you probably need to wait to publish until you can save up and afford to get the rest edited.

I don’t like saying you have to pay for editing before you publish, but if you have that many mistakes in your manuscript, you’re going to lose readers and get negative reviews that never go away.

If you’re broke, find a great editor and barter something.

Need help? Book and manuscript editing for authors.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.