The Efficiency Obstacles of Self-Editing

Two decades ago surveys suggested that 80% of Americans planned to write a novel.  Ten years ago, the ease of e-publishing and low costs of book production created the opportunity for many writers to realize their dream. Unfortunately, just because one can self-publish doesn’t mean that one should self-published. I am not suggesting that book agents and publishers should determine the content and plots for publication. They had their shot at it such control and their predilection for sameness resulted in misguided commercial success predictions and a disastrous decline in sales and profits. Self-Publishing eliminated industry driven censorship, increased selection variety, and returned art to the art of writing. But, as I’ve stated before, that is not an invitation to a free-for-all assault on the craft.

A step around the commercial gatekeepers (i.e. Publishing Houses) is not an advocation for “anything goes.” Nor a suggestion that the rules of writing and grammar no longer apply. In fact, an independent author’s responsibilities have increased. “Good enough” is not the standard a writer should use. A good story is not sufficient, it must also be a well-written story. Readers have demonstrated they are not completely willing to look past writing mechanics violations simply because the author has a “good idea.”

If one possesses a complete mastery of the craft then bending and breaking the rules is acceptable, for the rest of us…we need to edit—within the accepted guidelines and in the same way as a traditional publishing house. A polished manuscript is not only important for an author’s reputation; it is critical to the health and growth of self-publishing. If readers conclude that self-published books are unreliable in their quality, the industry is dead. In other words, this party is a semi-formal affair, so please don’t show up with boxed wine and Cheez Whiz.

In response to my opening salvo, some might say…

“I agree, and I review my work several times to ensure it is correct.”

“I’m pretty good at grammar, but I’m not holding back my dream just because I can’t afford an editor.”

“Reader’s aren’t that particular and will overlook an occasional error.”

“When I get picked up by a publisher they’ll ensure my work is edited.”

“I am creative, so I like to create my own grammar rules.”

If any of those statements seem a reasonable defense for not enlisting a qualified editor, the author should avoid publication. Would you take your car to a mechanic who couldn’t afford tools? Would you see a doctor who was “pretty good” at biology but didn’t earn a degree?” Would you live in a house built by a creative contractor who creates his own rules of physics? Would you buy a product from a manufacturer who promised that when his company was purchased, they’d ensure the product was functional? Probably not (well hopefully not). So why would you publish something, offer it in exchange for money, and not be able to deliver quality?

“Because I’m magnificent at grammar and I know there aren’t (a lot of) mistakes.”

“Boulder Dash,” I say

There are three reliable, factual, proven, and time-tested reasons that you cannot self-edit regardless of your skills, talent, or training. It may work from time to time. There may be a few exceptions, but let’s assume that most of us are the rule and not the exception. And being the “rule” means that we are governed by our brains. An incredibly efficient organ that makes cognitive life easy at the expense of details. The brain is so efficient that when it comes to the written word, and most things visual, content and context rule over specific detail. Three similar operations are in motion, and these processes mean that the writer is the least effective member of the editing team. If the author gets it correct the first time, all is well, but where there are mistakes, the writer will be the last to know.

You can’t un-ring the bell – Gestalt theory, developed in the early part of the last century, sought to explain brain efficiencies through the recognition of patterns. In short, we don’t need to see the entirety of a familiar thing to understand the whole. For example, when an object blocks our view of a person we do not contemplate their “completeness.” Our brain fills in all the missing parts from past experiences. Much in the same way you “see” a movie as movement when it is a series of still frame images set at a speed of (at least) twenty-four frames per second. In writing, the writer most often sees what they expect to see, not what is actually on the page. In order words…you see those missing words.

The Speed Readers – Learning to read is a complicated process. At first, the beginner must make a mental stop on each word. The stop allows time to search the memory for pronunciation and then the meaning. Upon reaching the sentence’s end, the new reader then strings it all together to form content. Through practice and increased vocabulary recognition, reading velocity and comprehension increases. Familiar words and articles process quickly and it’s only the presentation of strange words or complicated sentences that again slow the process. The brain assists with efficiency by building constructs of grammar, writing  and the result is a system that removes the requirement to read each word or contemplate each sentence. The brain uses context and patterns to create the meaning. Excellent for the reader but troublesome for the author since these brain “expectations” mean a writer can review several pages, several times, and still miss errors.

An editor doesn’t attend to the writer’s intention. He or she is reviewing the construct, comparing the work to the rules, and analyzing the things actually on or missing from the page. Even the best writer can not “un-marry” himself enough from the work to be an effective self-editor.

I know exactly what you mean – The brain is like your mom, dad or closest friend. It is your partner during the comfortable silences. It knows exactly what you mean. It does not require lengthy explanations, and it understands your meaning even in the simplest of gestures.

Here is the famous Cambridge Study that makes the point:   

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

See how your highly efficient brain helped out there? As long as the first letter and last are correct and provided the number of letters, even wrong letters, are present, your brain does the rest. It figures out what the writer intended. Great until you need to search eighty thousand words, find words that are spelled correctly but with the wrong meaning (there, their or they’re), or suffer from grammatical errors your brain isn’t familiar with (semi-colon alert!).

You don’t require an editor because you lack intelligence. You need one because your brain is an efficient organic machine. Thus, as a writer, you are best served by borrowing another person’s highly efficient organic machine. A third party who can focus on the words and the structure and do so on a word by word, sentence by sentence basis.

Even a great editor won’t catch every mistake, but they’ll catch far more than the writer will alone. And editors are like writers. They get better with practice and experience. So it’s not just a matter of the second set of eyes, it’s a matter of a trained second set of eyes.

If there is a single reason to use an editor than I say that it is this: Your name and your legacy is on the book cover. Your skills and ability will not be judged on your idea alone, but on the “whole” of the work, and as Henry Ford so aptly said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”

So enjoy all that boxed wine and Cheese Whiz while working those first drafts, but when you get to the business of publication, change out of those yoga pants and purchase some champagne…and maybe at least wear something that has a zipper.

Raymond Esposito is an award-winning dark fiction author and Amazon best-seller. His articles and interviews have appeared in a variety of publications including Family Circle and Sanitarium Magazine. He has a degree in Cognitive Psychology and has spent over 25 years as a criminal behaviorist.