Edit Your Own Writing: Yes or No?

If you’ve heard people say that the last thing you should do is edit your own writing, you might be skeptical. After all, who is better qualified to edit the things you write than the person who knows the material inside out–you?

It’s true, of course, that you do need to do some things that are considered editing. Keep working on your story, article, or post to make sure it’s as consistent and well written as possible. Whenever you find inconsistencies or contradictions, weed them out. And it’s far better to catch silly spelling errors and typos before the embarrassment of having someone else do it. (“I’m so glad I caught that before…!”) It’s your story or your article, so the ultimate responsibility to make it near-perfect is yours. So naturally you’re going to edit your own writing.

When You Edit Yourself

But at the same time, people who say that you shouldn’t edit your own writing are also right. Your greatest advantage–being more familiar with your work than anyone else–also becomes your biggest disadvantage. There comes a point when you are so familiar with the work that you don’t even notice errors any more.

The problem is that you know what your writing should say. And you know what you intended to say. So that’s what your brain sees as your eyes skim over what you’ve written. But sometimes, your sheer familiarity with the topic and all its details means that you assume you’ve written down all those details even if you haven’t. Your thorough knowledge of your subject fills in the gaps as read go along, and you don’t even realize it’s happening.

The same thing happens with misspellings or even missing words. And if you had your main character with green eyes in chapter two, but you’re picturing her with brown eyes now, you might not even think to ask what color her eyes were when you were writing three weeks ago. You know what she looks like now, so the question doesn’t even come up.

When an Editor Edits Your Work

But an editor–someone with completely fresh eyes–is usually going to notice these things. In fact, details like that will probably leap out immediately. “Wait a minute. I just read that she had green eyes, but suddenly she’s looking at the cat with brown ones? When did that happen?”

An editor is not immersed in your world or your subject the way you are. He or she does not have all that background knowledge and all those implicit assumptions filling in the gaps while reading along. If you’ve left out a step in a process, the editor will think, “Wait, how did they get from Point A to Point C without any Point B?”

Some believe that only an editor in the same field (say, physics or gaming or history) can properly edit someone else’s work. But most of the time, the best editor is going to be someone who doesn’t know the field and will not be making the same gap-filling assumptions as the writer. It’s the unfamiliar editor who will notice the missing steps, the misspellings, the changes in eye color, and so on.

So yes, you can edit your own writing–up to a point. But after that point–and every writer reaches this place with each piece of writing–you are going to miss things that a fresh pair of eyes will almost certainly catch right away. It’s that new gaze, unfamiliar with the characters or material you know so well, that will find most issues and help you put the final polish on your story, article, or other piece of writing.