Death by Editing: Why Writers Turn Neurotic

Do you know how many times I’ve edited my book?  Not enough.  It’s never enough.

Image: Nic McPhee via flickr commons:

Image: Nic McPhee via flickr commons:

I edit as I write, and edit twice more before sending it to my critique group, then edit each time I get feedback from a member – all the while going over it again myself and revising.  I scour every line, scrutinize every word and double-check my research before sending it to beta readers, then edit again with the new feedback.

I probably rewrite half of it.  The “Yay! Shiny new story!” feeling wears off and I see the manuscript’s faults.  This is good, but it turns me into a red-pen-wielding curmudgeon.  The approach becomes so clinical I feel like a machine.  Which word is the best fit here? Would this character really say that?  This whole scene stinks.  Cut.  In fact, the conflict isn’t engaging enough.  I should start over.  I don’t need scissors, I need dynamite.

The only part of the creative process left is wordsmithing, and I labor over every word before I dare query it to agents and editors.  I’m sick to death of the story, but I don’t skim over, because I want it to pass muster for an eagle-eyed editor.  I hate thinking I’ve polished it to a spit shine, only to hit send then find a typo.  Worse is a brilliant revelation, the solution to a weakness in the story I didn’t know existed, after I’ve already sent it.

So I keep revising out of sheer determination not to make a fool of myself, not out of love for my characters – I loved them the first fourteen times I read the story.  While waiting for responses from agents and editors, I still edit, doggedly.  It’s become an obsessive habit.

I’m mildly dyslexic.  If I don’t concentrate, my brain reverses images.  I think m-o-r-o-n but type n-o-r-o-m or some scrambled variation of that.  (Algebra class was a riot.)  Monochromatic lines of text twist and move in my vision, and I have to focus to make them hold still.  So I’m extra careful.

Image: kaibara87 via Flickr:

At the point I think I hate my book; everything in it is droll and purple and obvious, I put it away for a while.  I look at funny cat pictures on the internet and refinish my dining table, because I’m afraid I want to quit.  I don’t really want to quit.  I’ll try again later with fresh eyes.

An agent throws a compliment my way, and it launches me into another round of revisions.  “I have a deft touch with dialogue?  Really?”  I see new mistakes and ideas for improvement, so I edit some more.

Finally, someone wants to contract my book.  I think, “Really?  This messy old thing?”  It’s nice to hear a little enthusiasm from someone meeting the characters for the first time, who perhaps feels a bit of the excitement I did when creating them.  I’m so happy, I edit!

The whole world is going to read my book!  Or so I imagine.  I’m excited.  Eagle-eyed readers are on my mind, who miss nothing and won’t give me a nice review if they don’t mean it.  Unlike my crit partners and beta readers, who are honest but kind about it, the general readership is going to let me have it.

I edit for plot, character development, motive, brevity, fluidity, and so does my editor.  I line-edit for detail, and spend a ridiculous amount of time deciding if I should use the word “agitated” or “flustered.”  Or do I really mean “distressed?”  I cut a third off the word count and edit again, and now it’s better.  I’m proud of it.  And that’s how I get addicted to editing.

Just when I think I’ve really got it, I take one more look at the galley – my last chance for revisions before I launch it into the literary universe. I triple-check my research, my translations, and worry about alternate spellings again.  I change a hundred words, not because they’re wrong, I just found a clearer meaning.

I find two errors in the manuscript, and it unnerves me – you don’t know how many times I scoured the darn thing, eliminating those little mistakes.  It’s weird how my brain seems like a fine-toothed comb at times and like a buckshot-riddled sieve at others.  So I go over the galley again, making sure I didn’t miss anything.

Image: Y via Flickr:

I figure if someone paid me a penny every time I’ve made a correction in my manuscript, I could buy a Ferrari.  At least, a trip to Greece.  I tweak a bunch of phrases.  It’s an improvement, but on a small scale.  A really small scale.  I’m nit-picking now, but really, I can’t help myself.  I’m nervous.  I hope people will read it.  Seems too much to hope they’ll like it.

I finally hit send for the last time, and it’s over.  At least for me it’s over.  The production editor has it, and a few more pairs of eagle eyes will check for anything I missed.  (Anything I missed?!?!)  I don’t pull out my hair.  I try not to do a web search every hour to see if someone posted a review.

I vow I won’t care what reviewers say, at least not much.  I only hope no one says, “I found a typo, on page…”


  1. I think we’ll always care what reviewers you’ll say, after all it’s our beloved work we’re talking about it here. I think your thoroughness shows how dedicated and professional you are, and I’m sure the reader will appreciate that. I’ve found tons of things I’d like to have a chance to rework when editing my book this weekend. And I think I’d still find more, if I had enough time…I’ve made peace with myself by saying “next time…”

    • Envious of your healthy, logical attitude, Denyse. I’m still on the neurotic side, and I think I feel an ulcer coming on! And thanks for visiting. Can’t wait to read ONE HIT WONDER.

  2. We’ll always care, Moriah, always. It’s the curse of the writer. Actually, I look at it as a blessing and a curse – because if we didn’t care we wouldn’t look for those little issues…and then readers would *really* have some things to say about it.

    • Kristina, there’s a scary thought. (Giving reviewers fodder.) Yeah, I’m trying not to care, at least not much, but I get the feeling my skin is about to become thicker. Excited to read WHAT A TEXAS GIRL WANTS. Let the countdown begin!

  3. You’re the BEST!!! Everyone will LOVE your book, and you’ll float on cloud nine!!!

  4. I am in editing right now…yes it’s death! I just deleted several chapters because on my fourth read through it no longer worked! I can so relate to this! 🙂

  5. jeff7salter says:

    I tend to over-edit also, though I don’t attach any labels to it.
    Since I know several authors who write, proof, and immediately publish… I figure the literary world needs folks like you and me who labor over every word — thrice.

    • Greetings to a fellow neurotic. (Oh, whoops, there I go with the labels again, hehe) Well, props to the authors who can work so fast. I don’t come by polish easily, so I try to make up for it with rounds of editing. Maybe I over-compensate, who knows. Glad to hear I’m not the only one!

      • jeff7salter says:

        I’ve actually suggested to some of those speedy folks, “Hon, slow down. Let the ink dry on that first draft before you upload that novel.” But it falls on deaf ears. I guess, since we’re using labels, they would be Type A — write, spell-check, upload, done… NEXT.

        • You just gave me a nervous tic. That sounds like going to a party with no pants on.

          • jeff7salter says:

            Yeah, with each draft, I always find new things that are either wrong objectively (like misspelled words or formatting issues) … or things which need to be improved (better phrasing, different word choice, etc). I’d would hate think I had published what was basically a spit-shined first draft.
            In the one I have due out next month, I’m on the 9th complete run-thru, which doesn’t even count the content editor’s efforts. It will have had close to a dozen complete passes before it sees the light of day.

            • Heh. Sounds like we’re peas in an OCD pod 🙂 I write 100k, cut 15k, add 5k, then tinker with word choice and beats and tags until I shave off another 2k. It’s ridiculous.

            • jeff7salter says:

              LOL, possibly so. Yet I still wouldn’t apply the label ‘neurotic’. Some things — like beautiful sculpture — simply need to be worked until they’re ready. If folks wanted mass production, they could just buy pieces of plastic ‘art’ that were injection-molded by the millions.
              We’re the crafts-persons and artists of the writing field.


  1. […] all the character and plot details in my brain or [massively] edit them in later for consistency.  I love editing to a maniacal degree, so I don’t mind.  It’s how I […]

  2. […] all the character and plot details in my brain or [massively] edit them in later for consistency.  I love editing to a maniacal degree, so I don’t mind.  It’s how I […]

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