Chip MacGregor

June 12, 2015

The Danger of Over-Editing (a guest post from Gail Gaymer Martin)


One of the plights of a novelist or writer is wanting to perfect your work so completely that you can’t move forward. I’ve known numerous authors who’ve never completed a novel because they continue to rework the first three chapters until they literally take the life from it. Though editing is necessary to create a story that moves forward with every page and every paragraph, over-editing can be destructive by adding too much unneeded description or pages of dialogue that becomes chitchat. Cutting too much causes a novel to become bare bones as it loses reality, emotion, and depth. So what can you do? This is the question I was asked by a reader who follows my Writing Fiction blog.

The question:
Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed! I’ve written my beginning over and over again. I have even gotten to 15,000 words but keep getting frustrated. How do you move on without going back and constantly editing? I am a perfectionist but that seems to be hindering me in my writing. Any tips?

My response:
Over-editing can hinder a writer’s progress and allow someone with talent to fail finishing a book. A novelist’s voice is important. Readers come to know the tone and rhythm of your writing and connect with it. When you strip the bones raw or pile on needless fat, you’ve changed your style and voice and readers can disconnect.

Editing is needed to make the book the best it can be, but being too close to it, you will reach a point where you lose judgment and end up doing more damage than good. Time spent tweaking stops you from moving forward. You can become stagnant and get nowhere.

Yes, all books need an editor whether traditional or self-published. You want your book the best it can be, but consider it a first draft and know that if the book is to be traditionally published, an editor will help you polish your work with fresh eyes. Self-publishing means hiring an editor to work with your book, and traditional publishing means numerous editors, your acquiring editor plus copy and line editors will go over your book with you at no cost.

Over-editing not only takes the life from the book, but it also steals energy and creativity from the writer. The book can become boring and loses its spark. Instead, here are some ways to help you move forward.

Techniques to avoid over-editing

Set A Deadline – Traditional writers sell a novel and then are given a deadline which is part of the contract. This means authors work with the deadline in mind to make sure the book is on time. Even if the book isn’t sold, make a decision when you want the book to be completed or when you want the proposal to be ready for submission to a publisher. Deadlines help move the book along. Assign so many words a day or hours a week. If you spend the time editing, you will have to work longer hours to meet the timeline you set. Give yourself a penalty if you don’t meet the deadline. No chocolate the next day. No TV in the evening. When you lose something you enjoy for not making the deadline, you will think twice about over-editing.

Read your Work Aloud – Aloud is the key. Listen to your novel either by reading aloud or by using a text to voice program. Many software programs have them. I use Natural Reader and find it very helpful in not only catching typos or the wrong word (meet instead of met, slide instead of slid) but also spotting overworked phrases or words, awkward sentences and redundancies. I highlight the area I want to look at or make notes on the page and then look at only those sections later.

Use A Critique Group – While the group is only as good as its members, hearing others’ opinions can help you discover areas in your work that need clarifying, cutting or reworking. What’s clear in your mind can be confusing in someone else’s. Ask them to view the action and dialogue of your character’s personality, values and beliefs in mind. Is it realistic and consistent. People change but only in time. Input on your work is important but not from your mothers, siblings or good friends. They aren’t always good judges unless they are also successful novelists. And we know moms and friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. . .or their opinion is skewed because they care about you. Critique groups are best when they are fellow authors. When readers don’t find an error or problem in some of the scenes, don’t change them.

Make A List of Common Problems -When you’re working on a list of specific problems, you will not get stuck in a rut. As you discover areas of weakness, such as: too much backstory, lack of or too much description, overuse of dialogue tags or not enough white space on the page, focus on those and once you’ve made the changes, let it be. To resolve a problem with redundancy, for example, keep a list of words you overuse. As you listen to the novel or skim the pages, notice words that jump out at you because you’ve used them over and over. Use a thesaurus and find alternatives for the same idea and use them. Cut as many adverbs as possible. Adverbs are a weak way to make your character come alive. Avoid adverbs in dialogues tags. Make the sentences come alive with the words you select rather than telling the reader if the character is excited, suspicious or angry and don’t use too many adjectives in your descriptions, but don’t cut them to bare-bones.

Walk Away – Give yourself a break from the novel. Put it aside for a few days and allow yourself to un-attach from the story. When you go back you can look at it with new eyes. What looked bad might be fine. What seemed amazing might be so overworked that it’s lost the spark.

A Final Thought
Editors will overlook correctable writing problems if you send them an amazing, unique story. Work harder on creating a fresh idea with real life characters and spend less time chopping up your writers voice. I received a contract offer on my third novel, but it needed a different ending. I wanted the sale and accepted making the change. Guess what. I loved the new ending better. The original had been too predictable and too coincidental. The new ending added a richer meaning to the story and added strength to the story’s theme. Even great novels need editing.


Award-winning author Gail Gaymer Martin writes romantic suspense, romance, and women’s fiction, and has sold more than 4 million books. Her titles have received numerous national awards including the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice and the ACFW Carol Award for romantic suspense. Gail’s novel The Christmas Kite, a Holt Medallion finalist, was optioned for a Hallmark television movie. She was awarded the 2009 Heartsong Author of the Year, and CBS News listed Gail as one of the top four writers in the Detroit area. The author of Writing The Christian Romance, published by Writers Digest Books, she is a cofounder of American Christian Fiction Writers and a popular keynote speaker.

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  • Claudia H Gruy says:

    As a bilingual I find editing extremely stressful as I just don’t catch myself those unique phrases only someone with two sets of languages inside can come up with. And critique groups – I’m on Authonomy and while some give me fresh insights, it’s mostly a 50:50 between those “it’s great” and “sucks” as well as “explain to me” and “don’t tell me everything, I want to figure out”. Between that and the language difficulties I get extremely frustrated – no timeline can help with that – only a lottery win and a great editor who’ll try to keep my unique voice… Oh and maybe just one beta who will read to the end and tell me how the plot works instead of rereading the beginning and getting hung up an language/grammer stuff!!

  • Gail, thank you for this post. I think I’ve edited my manuscript a gazillion times. Ha! I’m going to share this post at our ACFW Memphis group this Saturday. It’s true and fitting for all writers. Thanks again.

  • Darlene L. Turner says:

    Hi Gail. This was very timely for me as I’m beginning a weekend of hibernation to edit! Ha! Thanks for all of your helpful tips. I will remember them when I start to over-edit! 🙂

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Gail, those are great ideas. I will need to implement the deadline idea!

    My critique group has been especially helpful. (But I’ve also gone to ones that weren’t.)

    Once I’ve considered my critique group’s suggestions, then I turn to beta readers for their input. A good beta reader is invaluable.

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