How to Know When You’re Done Editing

As I noted when talking about editing a novel, writers often fall into an endless editing trap. You could go over your manuscript an infinite number of times and still find things to improve—or at least change.

A client and I once made two rounds of edits on his book. If he had asked for a third round, I would have had this talk with him, but he beat me to it. “How many times could we go back and forth like this?”

I said, “We have reached the point of diminishing returns.” He’s a finance guy, so he understood my meaning. There comes a time when further editing doesn’t produce a better book, it just produces a different book.

Illustration by vaeenma • iStock
Illustration by vaeenma • iStock

That’s the goal behind the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist. Once you’ve been through the whole list, your manuscript should be ready to submit for traditional publication. Depending on how rough your first draft is, you may need to make a separate pass through the manuscript for each category of the list, but once you’ve addressed every item on the list to the best of your ability, you can start submitting.

See “Know When to Stop Editing”

If this is your first book, bring in some beta readers to get feedback. If you’re new to writing, you may want to hire a professional editor or critiquer to get a more thorough assessment. As you submit, the rejections you receive may offer suggestions for improvement.

If you’re self-publishing, I will go so far as to say that you must hire a professional editor. If you can’t afford both a content editor (someone who will examine major aspects like presentation and information) and a copyeditor (someone who will fix the mechanics: punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling), then at least get the copyeditor.

No one, not even professional editors, can edit themselves. When you’ve written the thing, you know what it’s supposed to say, so some errors will be invisible to you. Therefore you will always require a second set of eyes on anything more complex than a blog post. I have one client who hires me to proofread even his blog posts, because he knows his professional reputation hinges on his writing being as close to perfect as humanly possible.

There’s a reason I don’t say it must be perfect. A fellow writer once asked how many proofreading passes are necessary to ensure an error-free manuscript. I said about eight—but those eight passes need to be by eight different proofreaders, because different readers will catch different errors. And even then, a few typos might slip through.

Most indie authors can’t afford to hire eight proofreaders. For that matter, a lot of traditional publishers no longer use that many proofreaders, which is why you see errors in published books. But think about this: in a 100,000-word book, if there are ten typos, that means the book is 99.99 percent perfect.

If you ever want to bring a product to market, you must ship it. That means that once you’ve done everything humanly possible to make your manuscript as good as it can be, you turn it loose.

Yes, it’s scary. Do it anyway.

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  1. Well said, Kristen! There’s a point where a manuscript (of any length) can be nit-picked to death.

  2. […] I said last time, if you’re self-publishing, you need a professional editor. But where do you get one? There is no […]

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