As writers, a lot of us are pretty damn good at editing, too. It kind of comes with the territory. We literally work in the world of words. It’s what we do every single day, whether it’s what we’re writing for our own personal pleasure, what we’re reading for our own personal pleasure, or what we’re writing or reading for work (for those of us lucky enough to work as writers).
So, really, it’s no surprise that most of us are pretty good at reading over other people’s work and giving good, solid edits, whether grammatical or story-wide. Producing writing that is sensical and logical is kind of our thing. It’s what we do.
(Unless you’re writing some crazy-ass, post-modern, anti-literature, but that’s a story for another day.)
Anyway, if we’re going to follow this “logically,” it makes sense for many writers to feel like they’re good enough at editing to be their own editors for the projects they’re submitting to literary magazines, competitions, or self-publishing. They make such great editors for other people, so naturally they must be really good at editing their own work. I mean, they know it so well!
Actually, though, that’s exactly the problem.
While having a superbly edited piece isn’t always necessary for basic submissions and whatnot, it’s still a good idea to have someone else read through your work for you to do the major editing work. It’s not because you’re a shit writer, and it’s not because you wouldn’t do a decent job of editing your own work if you really, absolutely had to.
It’s because you will never be as good at editing your work as someone else is. (Assuming, again, that this other person is a decent editor to begin with – you probably are a better editor for your own work than a second grader, but I digress.)
In an article recently published by Wired, psychologist Tom Stafford explains why writers are more likely to miss their own spelling mistakes and typos when they’re editing their work than another person reading the same exact paper. Basically, we’re too damned smart for our own good.
This is a great passage from that article that pretty much explains it all in easy-speak:
“As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). ‘We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,’ said Stafford. ‘Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.’ When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proofreading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.”
So, when it comes down to it, if you’re submitting a piece for a contest or representation and you want to make sure it’s as amazing as it can be, I seriously recommend asking a fellow writer to do an editing read-through for you. They’ll catch mistakes you never saw (seriously, this happens every single time someone reads any of my longer pieces, even if I’ve reread it a dozen times).
And, for anyone considering self-publishing, it’s even more critical. I can’t tell you how often I flip through the Amazon preview pages of self-published works and find even the first few chapters riddled with errors I’m sure the author just missed because he or she knew the story so well.
Basically, it never hurts to have a second set of eyes on the page.