13 Professional Book Editors Answer My Burning Question

Self-Publishing a Book Still Demands Professional Book Editing…

No Joke.  You Need to Hire an Editor. I thought my manuscript was pretty “tight” but you can see the lovely markup of some of my mistakes and my own editors comments below:


Since professional book editors see so many manuscripts, I thought it would be fun and educational for authors to see the answer to this burning question:

What is the #1 mistake that you see first-time authors make?”

So I posed that exact question to some of the most highly recommended editors out there. Below, you can see their responses, with links back to their websites.

Side Note: I have found that editors are extremely thoughtful and helpful, with your best interests at heart. So, it was no surprise that over half of the editors I asked were gracious enough to take part in this “survey…”😀

Side Side Note: Check this post out for more about picking an editor…

Thelma Mariano:

Most first-time novelists underestimate the amount of work required to bring their completed draft to a publishable level. This leads to what I believe is the #1 problem with early manuscripts: a lack of story tension.

If we lack a “story-worthy” problem, something strong enough to pull a reader through hundreds of pages, needing to know what happens next, no amount of editing will make it better.

What are the stakes? In most cases, our protagonists must confront whatever they FEAR the most to attain what is MOST IMPORTANT to them. Unlike real life, where we long for everything to go smoothly, readers want a build-up of conflict and tension in their fiction. A story without adequate tension is flat and boring. It isn’t enough to start with a “hook.” We must ask ourselves in every scene or chapter: how can I make the reader tense? Or arouse his or her curiosity?

What helps: inserting deadlines/time pressure, characters at cross purposes with each other, confrontational dialogue and LOTS of obstacles or setbacks to our hero’s or heroine’s goals. Sometimes new authors give their characters inner conflicts (e.g. a traumatic past or flawed beliefs) but leave out the external conflicts that move the story forward. We really need both.

Reading fiction is above all an emotional experience. First-time authors often drop the “emotional thread” that runs through their scenes by omitting the characters’ reactions to events. This is like tossing a small boulder into a bottomless well … you’re WAITING for it, but never hear the splash!

We DO get attached to our characters and storylines, which is why we need to step back from early drafts, get constructive feedback, and then rebuild the novel in a way that allows it to reach its full dramatic potential. This means narrating those parts that lack drama and expanding/slowing down the most compelling scenes so that readers can experience them moment by moment.

I have learned to be ruthless in my own work, cutting out whatever is non-essential, because doing what’s BEST for the story is what it’s all about!

Chantel Hamilton:

The biggest mistake first-time authors make is following someone else’s advice about how to write a book. The internet has made us think that there’s a single formula, process, or “10-step proven path” to getting from here to published book, and it’s just not true. Every author’s writing process is different and valid. It is only from the struggle, determination, and, yes, chaos of trying to find your way as an author that a truly unique book emerges. You can do it, and it’s worth it.

Roz Morris:

First-time authors have a huge learning curve. They have to get an idea that’s big enough to last through an entire book. Then they’ve got to figure out how to write it, and withstand the periods where they’re frustrated or disappointed that it’s not working the way they imagined. Then they have to suss out the publishing world, which is an entire professional ecosystem with plenty of predators who are looking to profit from the naive novice.

Does that look like a lot to learn? Indeed it is. So my #1 piece of advice is this: don’t rush. I see so many writers who are in too much of a hurry. They worry they’re spending too long on a manuscript. But most established writers spent years learning their craft. You will too. First-time writers are in a huge hurry to get their book in front of an audience. But established writers will show their manuscript to a few trusted insiders, then will go back and edit and refine again. First-time writers are also desperate to get their book officially in print, either on pages or in ebook form. Again, in the real world, publishing takes time. Although we have tools that can get a book out in a matter of hours, there are many phases a manuscript should go through before it’s ready for the public – developmental editing, rewrites, copy editing, proofing, design. Yes, professional writers go through this. And they have a team behind them; they don’t do it by themselves. And first-time writers are often persuaded to spend money where they shouldn’t, and to economise when that’s not wise. Learn when it’s good to pay for things (such as good developmental edits or cover design) and where you’re not using your money well (such as services that are overpriced or marketing campaigns that are unsuitable for your needs).

In a nutshell, my advice is this: learn where you should slow down. It’s not a race. Once your book is out, it will be available for years and years. Take the proper time so that you’re proud of it and you’re happy about the way you published.

Roz’s Writing Blog

Katharine D’Souza:

A common mistake I see from new authors is ‘throat clearing’ – not getting into the story from chapter one, but instead setting the scene and spending too much time on back story. It is useful for the reader to see the ‘normal world’ of the story, but you also need to grip them and convince them you have a story they need to read.

Debra Hartmann:

The #1 mistake first time authors make:

Staying so personally invested in their manuscript that they don’t let it grow up to be the best book it can be. Publishing without proper planning and preparation, holding onto words their editor advises them to let go of, ignoring advice from designers and marketing consultants. Personal attachment is self-sabotaging because it doesn’t consider the buyer’s needs, and if those aren’t met, either no sale will be made or the sale will result in a bad review.

It’s very natural for an author to feel attached to their material so that they can’t always make objective decisions, and new authors have no experience in the business of publishing. There is nothing wrong with that being the case, only with not doing anything productive about it. Realizing weak spots and turning them into strengths is part of what makes any business successful.

The moment an author seeks an editor, they are stepping beyond the personal experience of writing to invest in creating a product—manuscripts are personal, books are business. The target market’s needs have to be met or investments of time and money will be for nothing more than personal satisfaction. Find experienced professionals to advise you, selecting pros who take a teaching approach instead of treating your questions like time wasters, and then trust them. Learn everything you can and let their fresh, non-biased, business focus guide you through decisions you may stick on just because you’re too close to it. And don’t pick at the answers you get because they conflict with your personal perspective—be open to learning so you can develop a savvy business perspective and solid foundation of experience without making bad impressions on the marketplace that can never be taken back.

Sue Copsey:

Wordiness. A publisher will spot this immediately, and it’ll mean instant rejection. The good news is, it’s easy to rectify. When you’re editing, look out for junk words. My main targets as an editor are: very, really, just, so, anyway, actually, that, basically, literally, some, all, both. Also, ask yourself if that adverb is necessary (e.g. ‘He jumped up excitedly, a big grin on his face.’ We know he’s excited because he jumped up and he’s grinning.)

I recommend doing a search of your m/s for junk words, and for each instance, ask yourself if the sentence would work as well without it. Nine times out of ten it will. A rather extreme example:

Basically, I just wish that all authors, both new and experienced, would actually spend some time really familiarising themselves with the basic mistakes that all writers make, so that their writing can be very tight and literally make better sense.


I wish authors, new and experienced, would spend time familiarizing themselves with the basic mistakes writers make, so their writing can be tight and make better sense.

Judith Henstra:

Some first-time authors come to us for a copy edit only (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.), when in fact, they could use a developmental edit. This is an edit where we give feedback on the storyline, the characters, the writing style, etc. and help them make the story even more engaging for the reader.

Even well-known authors get feedback from their editors to improve their story, so it’s not a luxury, as some people seem to think.


They rush to publish without taking enough time to
master the skills of the craft and practice until they can competently
write a book.

Mikaela Pederson:

The number one mistake I see first-time authors make is hiring an inexperienced editor simply for the low price. Self-published authors—especially first-timers—tend to struggle with the idea of paying high prices for editing and book covers. Just like a cover, though, readers really will judge a book by the quality of its editing.

I can’t tell you how many of my now-loyal clients came to me with the same story: they painstakingly wrote their first book, hired a cheap editor to look it over, published it, and got absolutely slaughtered by reviewers for the many remaining errors. They then did some research to find a reputable editor, came to terms with the idea of spending more money, and contacted me to help them fix their manuscript. They learned the hard way, but that doesn’t mean other new authors have to.

Good editing, just like an eye-catching cover, is an investment in the success of a book and can make or break an author’s budding career. Luckily, in writing, just as in life, we can correct our mistakes and nearly always come out the other side all the better for it.

Linda Yezak:

Number 1 mistake: Thinking that typing “the end” means they’re ready to publish. Oh, no, little grasshoppers. That’s just the beginning of the blood, sweat, and tears.

Lorraine Reguly:

The biggest mistake I see new authors make is that they do not invest in professional editing. As a result, their books contain grammatical and other errors, and readers are not impressed with the poor quality of their writing.

Leigh Hogan:

Over-reliance on was and other forms of be grinds my edits to a halt. Most of the time another verb could be used instead, but I’m not supposed to be the one finding it. Sure, I’ll spot a form of be, toss in a suggestion to replace it, and move along. If, however, verb selection murders my pace, I soon become frustrated. Not only am I overstepping the bounds of editing into the realm of writing, but also I’m exhausting my mental resources trying to determine what the author meant.

I will return a manuscript unedited when the document requires more work than I can complete in a month. This is a rare event, but when it happens, repetition of was usually tops my list of things that need to be fixed. The discussion of verb selection then leads into passive voice and show versus tell. That’s why I consider was the number one mistake: it contributes to the two most common problems in fiction.

Katie McCoach:

As an editor, I think most people would assume I’d say the number one mistake first-time authors make is not editing before they publish. And it is a mistake I see here and there, but I wouldn’t say it’s the number one, or most common. What I think is even more important than editing alone, is presenting a book in the most professional way from the start. For a first-time indie author, it’s important that you put your best foot forward with your first book. This is your entrance on the scene. This is what you are building your reader base from. It’s where you’ll say, “Hey. I’m here. I have something worth reading.” Don’t give readers an easy excuse to not take a chance on your or buy your book. Invest time, money, and effort in the writing, editing, formatting, and designing a cover for your book. Because if you aren’t willing to invest in your book, who will?

Philip Athans:

More and more I’m noticing what I can only describe as an obsession for minutiae.

This is as well-intentioned as it can be. After all, no one starts a book thinking: I hope this romance novel will be really difficult to get into and virtually impossible to track. Just the opposite is true, but then a strange desire to impress with your research, or some subconscious feeling that your readers have nothing to bring to the table, takes hold and here comes the details!

If it slows the pace of your story, your research is the opposite of impressive. And reading itself is a creative act that details destroy.

The best writing allows room for readers to explore the experience on their own. But in my experience with first-time authors, instead we’re treated to exhaustive detail, including things like a character’s precise height, weight, eye and hair color, and other components of a lovingly over-detailed physical description. All of this is almost always entirely unnecessary. Though it may help you, as you’re writing, to more or less “cast” your story, you want to actually convey as little of that to your readers as possible. Let them see themselves in the hero and their boss or their least favorite teacher or some politician as the villain. Let them cast their own favorite actors.

This is true for setting as well. Though the old advice “write what you know” was well-meaning it’s oh so often hopelessly over-applied. Setting your mystery, romance, or horror novel in your real home town is perfectly fine. Breathe the life of that place into your story, show us what it feels like to be there—but save the turn-by-turn driving directions to Google Maps. And likewise, if you and your hero share an occupation or hobby, that’s fine too, but make a choice early on whether you want to write a non-fiction book about, say, life as a dentist or a guide for model train collectors or you want to write a novel that includes those things. The more detail you pour into the hero’s dental practice or train collection the farther you push your readers, who likely share neither of those interests, away.

Finding the balance between too much and too little detail isn’t easy. First, listen to yourself. If you’re thinking, Is this too much? it probably is! Then listen to a trusted first reader, preferably someone who doesn’t share your occupation, home town, etc., and ask, “Is this too much?” If that reader says “Yes, it is,” listen—but also look for clues that your first reader is just being polite. You’ll see it—you might not like it, but you’ll see it—on his or her face. Then sit down and calmly “kill your darlings.” Readability always trumps detail.


And there you have it! Sage advice from professional book editors to help you avoid any pitfalls!

One thought on “13 Professional Book Editors Answer My Burning Question

  1. Excelente post. Muchas gracias. Estos son los secretos de la publicación que todos los autores independientes necesitamos.

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