Sometimes, the editing process is really scary.
Yep, I said it. Sometimes this process is really intimidating. It’s overwhelming. It makes you wonder, do you really have what it takes?
If you’ve ever felt stuck because you can’t figure out what to change in your novel—or overwhelmed because you can think of too many things to change—you’re not alone. And in this article, I’ll share five steps to get you un-stuck so you can edit with confidence.
I spend a lot of time talking about why I love editing. And I do! I love it so much.
In fact, if you’d like to hear more of that kind of uplifting, invigorating excitement about why I love editing, I recommend that you go check out 3 Simple Steps to Edit Absolutely Anything in Your Novel. In that episode, I share some of the biggest things I love about editing, and I kind of go on an impassioned rant about it. I found it super fun.
But I hear from a lot of writers who do not love the editing process.
They feel stuck. Overwhelmed. Afraid that they don’t have what it takes to go from a messy first draft to an amazing, publishable final draft.
If that resonates with you, if you’re feeling like that right now, this episode is for you.
But . . . can I be totally honest with you? I’m making this episode for you, sure, because I know that loads of writers feel really intimidated by the editing process. It’s really easy to get stuck here.
But I am also making this episode for myself. Honest to goodness, I need to hear this too.
Feeling Intimidated by the Editing Process Is Normal
In fact, I actually had the idea for this episode while I was in the middle of reading a really great book that I’m editing. It’ll be a while before I get to share details about this book, but trust me, you’re in for a treat.
This writer is fantastic. She crafts amazing stories. And she trusts me to help her make those stories even better—to take the ideas and outlines and drafts that she has, these stories that are already really great, and bring them to the next level.
Which is SO MUCH FUN. It’s one of the things I love most about my role as an editor.
And also, it’s really intimidating!
When something is already really great, it’s a big challenge to figure out how to make it even better.
So while I was reading this book, I started feeling intimidated. I started feeling all this imposter syndrome—am I really up to this task? Do I really have what it takes? Sure, I’ve edited books for years, but is this book beyond me?
So in the middle of editing that book, I actually paused my reading and pulled out a document and I started making notes. I thought, what would I tell a writer who is feeling imposter syndrome around editing their book?
Which of course, really means, what did I need to tell myself when I get scared to edit a book?
That’s a little vulnerable honesty for you. But I wanted to share this so that you know—it’s not just you. If you’re feeling intimidated about the editing process, you’re not alone. Editing books is my profession, and studying how to edit books is what I do for fun in my free time, and I still feel intimidated about the editing process, too.
You’re Not Alone
In this episode, I’m going to share five things to do when you’re feeling intimidated and overwhelmed about editing your novel. What to do when you wonder whether you really have what it takes.
In fact, this would be a great episode to share with your writer friends. Do you know anyone who’s working on a novel and feeling some imposter syndrome around it? Send them the link to this episode!
I really believe that this is such a common experience, so I’d love for you to share this advice with your critique partner, with your writing group, and with any friends you know who are struggling with the editing process.
Let’s all be honest with each other about the fact that this is really hard sometimes—and let’s bust through the imposter syndrome and edit some really amazing books together.
All right, that’s enough preamble. Let’s get into what you’re going to do when you feel overwhelmed by your editing process.
2 Reasons Writers Feel Intimidated to Edit
Actually, before we get to solutions, I want to talk about why you might be feeling this way.
There are a lot of reasons why you might be intimidated by the editing process. But I think that most of them fall into two general categories:
1. You can’t find anything to change
This is the category I’m in right at this moment with that book I’m editing. The book is really great right out of the gate, and so nothing, or at least, very few things, are jumping out at me immediately as the obvious areas to change.
Does that mean this book is perfect? Nope. It’s a very early draft, and I’m not satisfied to say that it’s already in its highest form at this stage. I believe there are ways to dig in and make it much better.
But those ways aren’t obvious. I’m going to have to really look for them.
You might also feel this way, like you can’t find anything to change, if you’re new to the editing process. You might have a gut sense that your book needs work, but you really have no idea what to do with it. So you don’t feel ready to publish, but you also don’t have any helpful direction to make useful changes.
2. There’s too much to change
So that’s the first category. Here’s the second:
You can find too many things to change.
You read your manuscript, and you can think of a dozen, fifty, a hundred things that need improvement.
Which is kind of helpful—now you have things to work on.
But there are so many things, you have no idea where to start. You have no idea how to figure out which ones are most important, which ones you should work on first or leave for later. And maybe most importantly, you have no idea how to make all those changes.
Plus, when you look at your writing and all you can see are hundreds of things to change, it can be really discouraging. It can make you wonder whether this whole book is worth it after all, or whether you’re even cut out to be a writer.
So while it’s helpful to be able to identify areas for improvement, it can actually make you feel just as stuck, just as much like an imposter who doesn’t have what it takes to edit a book.
5 Tips to Edit Your Novel When You’re Afraid You Don’t Have What It Takes
Now, I’m sure there are other reasons why you might feel like an imposter during the editing process. But those two categories cover a lot.
And let’s be honest: if you are feeling like you don’t have what it takes, you know it.
You don’t need me to give you a checklist of all the reasons why you might feel inadequate.
You know it when you open your manuscript, and you look at it, and you feel overwhelmed and afraid and like maybe you should go open Facebook or eat some chocolate or go on a walk or do the dishes or clean up all the junk mail on the kitchen table or do your taxes or literally anything that doesn’t mean actually editing your novel.
The question is, what are you going to do when you feel that way?
And I have five steps for you. Ready for them? Here we go.
1. Approach your editing process nonjudgmentally
All right, this might sound a little weird. When you’re editing a book, aren’t you supposed to be really judgmental? Aren’t you supposed to be analyzing what’s working and what’s not?
Yes. That’s all true: editing involves a lot of analysis.
But what I mean here is that I want you to let go of judging yourself as you edit.
Let me give you an example.
When I edit a book, the first thing I do is read the book. Start to finish. Top to bottom. Read the whole thing.
And as I’m reading, I’m thinking really hard.
I’m analyzing everything: the point of view, the theme, and especially the story structure. I’m looking for specific structural elements throughout the story.
And I’m evaluating as I go: what’s working? What’s not? What chapters do I need to make note of to return to once I’ve finished reading the book?
A lot of times, as I do this, I’ll have a lot of ideas. I’ll spot plot holes and areas where the exposition drags or major plot developments that happen too early or too late or characters who are introduced once and then never come back. I take a lot of notes as I’m reading.
And when I’m done with that initial read, often, I already have a lot of direction for what kind of feedback I’ll ultimately give the writer.
But with the book I’m working on right now, it’s really good! I got halfway through, and I could think of only one significant change, and that’s a change to the very first chapter. Nineteen more chapters in, and I’m just thoroughly enjoying the story, and nothing is coming to mind immediately as something to fix or change.
It would be very easy for me to feel insecure about that, like I’m reading this book wrong or I don’t have what it takes to edit it.
But sitting around judging my own experience of reading this book isn’t actually useful. It takes my focus away from the story itself, and it puts it on me and my abilities. It distracts me from reading and analyzing the story.
And the best part is, it’s a really good sign that I’m just enjoying this book! That’s a great thing for this book and the writer.
And I know that I have an arsenal of editing tools that I’ll apply in later steps, and those tools will help me identify the feedback that isn’t coming to me right in this moment.
So as I’m reading this book, and I’m feeling these imposter syndrome feelings coming up, I remind myself that it is okay if the ideas aren’t coming to me right away.
I’m not going to sit around judging my experience. I’m just going to keep going, keep using my editing process, and the process will work.
So that’s step one: approach your editing process nonjudgmentally. Don’t focus on judging yourself and your abilities while you’re editing. Just work through the editing step you’re on, and eventually, the good ideas will come.
And by the way, if you’re not sure what editing step you’re on, a good place to start is by reading your whole book, start to finish.
2. Listen to your gut feelings
A lot of what I do as an editor is critical analysis. And like I said, I have a lot of tools that help me to do that analysis. I know specific things that I’m looking for, and I have specific strategies to fix things that aren’t working.
Most of that came from years of study and practice. I had to learn the craft of editing a story.
And if you’re new to editing, you probably don’t have that background. You probably haven’t read a ton of craft books and studied under top editors and collaborated closely with other editors and expert writers.
But here’s what you DO have: an intuitive understanding of story. You have a gut sense of how stories work, a sense that you’ve developed over a lifetime of reading and watching and listening to great stories.
So when you’re feeling that editing imposter syndrome creeping in, remember your strength: you know what great stories feel like.
And then, as you’re reading your manuscript, listen to your gut feelings.
- What is exciting?
- What is fun?
- What is thrilling?
- What is boring?
- Where did you skim?
- Where were you confused and had to reread a section a few times to get it?
All of that is fantastic information. It’s data that you can now use to figure out what’s working and where your story still has some weaknesses.
And you have access to this data without any expert training at all, just by dint of your own experience as an avid reader and consumer of stories.
3. Rely on a process
In order to edit a book effectively, you need a process. You need a system of specific things to analyze that will point you to the most important weaknesses of your story.
Without a clear process, editing is an enormous, amorphous, undefined task. “Make these 80,000 words better” is tremendously unclear and overwhelming.
But “describe how your character is different at the end of the book than they are at the beginning”—that’s a clear, specific, discrete task. You can accomplish it in just a few minutes.
I’m not going to give you a full editing process here in this episode.
But what I do have for you is a ten-step guide to the editing process. It’s called 10 Steps to Edit Your Novel. And you can download it for free by filling out the form below:
Plus, this is why the whole Your Next Draft podcast exists! My goal in this podcast and blog is to give you actionable strategies you can use to edit your novel. So look through past episodes and subscribe to the podcast so you get all the new ones, too, and put them into practice in your novel.
What I do want to make really clear here is this: you need a process.
And I also want to go back to that original language I used for this step: fall back on an editing process.
An editing process is something you can rely on. When it feels like you’re failing to edit your book, when you’re not coming up with brilliant ideas just by reading your story, when you’re overwhelmed with too many things to change, your editing process is your guide.
Trust that the editing process you are using is going to produce results that make your book better.
And rather than getting stuck in your fear or overwhelm or imposter syndrome, just execute the next step in your editing process, and trust that as you continue to use your process, your book will improve.
4. Talk through your book with someone you trust
Reach out to someone you trust and talk through your editing challenges with them.
I have had so many moments when I have felt stuck while I’m editing. I’ve had so many times when I knew there was something not quite right in a book, but I couldn’t identify exactly what it was, or I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
And every time that’s happened, I have been so grateful for my editor friends.
I reach out to an editor friend, and we get on a call, and I share where I’m stuck, and we talk it through. They never fail to give me amazing advice.
In fact, I have a standing call with some of my editor colleagues where we get on Zoom every week, sometimes even multiple times a week, to support each other, troubleshoot where we’re stuck, and figure out exactly how to make stories work.
Sometimes, my editor friends give me amazing ideas.
And sometimes, it’s just the simple act of talking the problem out with someone that helps me come up with those amazing ideas.
So I encourage you to do the same thing. Find someone you can reach out to when you’re stuck. And then, whenever you feel that imposter syndrome creeping up again, get on a call with them and talk through your story struggles.
That person might be your writing group or someone specific in your writing group. It might be an alpha reader or critique partner.
That person might also be an editor or a book coach. I have a few clients that I meet with on a regular basis, weekly or even more frequently, and we talk through their editing challenges every time we meet. We troubleshoot, we identify what’s working and what’s not and their best next steps, and then they go apply their edits with confidence.
Those conversations are always really inspiring, collaborative, and fun. They’re one of my favorite ways to work with writers because they allow us to solve problems right as they come up, in the middle of someone’s editing process, so they never get stuck and they can get back to editing right away.
So if you’re feeling stuck, I encourage you to find someone you can reach out to and talk through your challenges.
And if you’re thinking I could be a great support for you, and you’d like to find out how we could work together to troubleshoot your editing challenges, you can reach out to me by clicking here and sending me an email about your book.
5. Ditch perfectionism
You and I are in this world of writing and editing books because we love great books. We want to read fantastic stories. And we want to create the kinds of stories that readers love as much as we love the stories that inspire us.
Because we have those lofty aspirations . . . it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism.
You want your book to be perfect. And in order to make it perfect, you need to make the perfect edits. If there is anything wrong at all in your book, you need to fix it right now. Right?
That’s not how this works.
Here’s the truth: When you finish editing this draft of your book, your book will not be perfect.
It’s entirely possible that when you finish the next draft of your book, it will still not be perfect.
And that’s okay! That’s completely normal. In fact, that’s how the writing process works.
You can’t possibly fix everything in one draft. There’s just too much—specifically, there are too many types of things for you to focus on. You can’t focus on developmental edits, line edits, copy edits, and proofreading edits all at once and do a good job at all of them.
So your goal in every draft is to identify the biggest, broadest concerns. You’ll start with developmental things: is the story structure there? Are the characters developed?
And you will not worry about the misplaced commas and misspelled words and clunky sentences and awkward dialogue while you’re solving those problems.
With every draft, you’ll zoom in a little closer. Those structural issues might be solved in your second or third draft, and then you can start focusing on sentence-level edits. And when your sentences all sound the way you want them to, you’ll zoom in closer to correct the mechanics.
This is a recursive process. You return to your manuscript draft after draft, first to solve the big-picture issues, and then gradually working your way to fine-tuning.
But the only way this recursive process works is if you ditch perfectionism.
You have to wrap your mind around the truth that your goal is not to edit a perfect book.
No. It’s not.
Your goal is to explore, address, and hopefully solve specific problems in your story—and leave smaller issues for later.
When you embrace this, when you finally ditch perfectionism, editing becomes way less pressure-ridden and way more fun. You have space to experiment, to explore, to get it wrong.
You don’t have to fix everything all at once. You have so many more chances to come back and clean things up on the next draft, and the next draft, and the next.
For me and the book I’m reading right now, this is good news. It means that if I miss things in this edit because I think this book is just too good right now, I have another chance to come back and catch things that I discover in the next draft.
And if you’re in that space where you’re overwhelmed by way too many problems in your manuscript, this is fantastic news. It means that you do not have to fix all of the things right now!
You don’t. You can look at that list of a hundred problems that desperately need your attention, and you can choose just five, or three, or even just one to work on right now.
Your draft does not have to be perfect. And that is wonderful.
Your Path Out of Editing Overwhelm
So there you have it: five things to do when you are feeling overwhelmed, grappling with imposter syndrome, wondering whether you really have what it takes to edit your novel.
Here they are again:
- Adopt a posture of nonjudgmental curiosity as you edit.
- Listen to your gut feelings about what’s working, what’s not working, what you enjoy, and where you’re bored as you read through your story.
- Rely on an editing process with clear and specific steps. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Use an established editing process—and if you don’t have an editing process yet, keep following this podcast. That’s what Your Next Draft is all about!
- Talk through your story challenges with someone you trust—a writing group, a critique partner, a book coach or editor.
- Ditch perfectionism. Your goal is not to edit a perfect draft of your novel. It’s to solve a specific problem within this draft. You’ll come back for all the rest in later drafts.
I hope those five steps help you cut through the overwhelm and find your way into editing your novel.
Your Turn: Edit Your Novel With Confidence
Right now, I invite you to take a minute to reflect on your editing experience.
How are you feeling about editing your book right now? Just take a moment to acknowledge that feeling.
And then choose one thing you’re going to do next in your editing process. Here are some ideas for you:
- Maybe you’re going to read your full manuscript from start to finish. Or you might select just one scene and read that.
- Maybe you’re going to listen to your gut as you read and identify the things that feel really great and the things that don’t feel so great yet.
- Maybe you’re going to reach out to someone you trust and ask them to troubleshoot your story with you.
- Maybe you’re going to seek out an editing process to apply to your book. Be sure to grab my free guide, 10 Steps to Edit Your Novel!
What are you going to do next to overcome that imposter syndrome?
You can do this. You have what it takes. I believe in you. If you can write your book, you can edit your book.
And if you ever get discouraged and start believing that maybe you can’t, come back to this article, give it another read, and find the one best thing to do next.
You’ve got this. And I’m so excited to see what you create.