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Write On! Features: Self-Editing vs Hiring A Professional by Dan Cross

By Dan Cross
Originally published in Write On! Magazine, issue 11

Writing is our means of translating our boundless imaginations and ideas into forms others can make sense of. But if our words don’t communicate effectively, readers can end up confused and uninterested. Editing, then, is the act of making your writing as comprehensible as possible without losing the original meaning.

This sounds complicated, but is something we writers appreciate intuitively. We know readers must be able to understand our words because we expect to understand the writing of others. We know our literature must follow certain rules because we rely on those same assumptions.

Self-editing is something all writers do. In fact, the moment you re-read and change something, you’ve self-edited. But there is a difference between small tweaks and a comprehensive edit. So, in this Big Debate, we ask when it’s OK to edit yourself and when to hire a professional?

Self-Editing And How To Do It Well

Many think they can’t self-edit. However, it’s often a question of focus. If you’re trying to find and fix everything at once it can be overwhelming. Understanding the different types of editing helps writers concentrate on different aspects at different times. Let’s look at the big two — developmental and copy editing — and how, by understanding their purpose, you can become a better editor.

Developmental Editing

The purpose of this big-picture edit is to create a coherent reader experience by identifying and tackling plot, characterisation and structural problems. After all, the best compliment someone can pay your writing is to say they couldn’t put it down, right? Well, you achieve this by immersing the reader as much as possible, and the easiest way to improve this element of your writing is to eliminate the things that break immersion.

So, read through your writing and if anything reminds you you’re reading something, think about why and change it.

Something that will also help you learn to self-edit developmentally is to read similar content by other writers. Think about why you like each piece and what you would do differently, then apply what you learn to your own writing.

Copy Editing

Copy editing fixes everything from spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax to formatting and style consistency. The purpose is to make sentences easy to read and understandable, while conveying the same information. This type of editing is more objective, so requires time to learn the various rules.

There are things you can do to make your editing more effective:

  • If you write on a computer, change the font style, size and spacing. Your brain thinks it’s reading something new, so it’s more likely to spot mistakes.
  • Read your work aloud and listen for missing words, awkward sentences or unrealistic dialogue.
  • Use online grammar checkers to fix spelling, grammar and punctuation. Use more than one because they never catch everything!

When you’ve edited as much as you can yourself, hiring a professional will improve the likelihood of your work having the desired impact on any readers, agents or publishers.

Suspecting there are things in your writing that could be improved but you don’t know how, is challenging. Hiring an editor allows you to hand it over to someone who’s trained to find issues and missed opportunities. Furthermore, getting advice that applies specifically to you will help unlock your potential.

Think of editing like building a wall. Some of us think we can do a semi-decent job if we watch enough YouTube videos. However, a professional with experience and positive reviews will do a better job right away. It might cost more, but knowing we’ll have a quality result gives us peace of mind.

Where this analogy falls down (unlike the wall, hopefully) is that, as well as getting back a well-edited piece, you’ll learn how to be a better writer and editor.

Professional editing isn’t cheap; it’s a huge time investment, calling upon years of expertise. So, if your writing is just for you, weigh up if the investment is worth it. However, if you want to publish, an editor will improve the likelihood of your writing having the desired impact on readers, agents and publishers.

When Should Self-Editing End And Professional Editing Begin?

Sooner or later, we reach a point when we can no longer spot errors alone and, even if we know something isn’t working, we’re at a loss how to fix it. This is why even famous and experienced authors still use editors.

So, once you’ve done everything you can think of and you start tweaking without improving anything, it’s time to hire a professional. The more you do beforehand, the more your editor can focus their attention on the less obvious issues. It will probably save you money, as well, as they’ll get the job done faster.


Learn more about editing

Pen to Print provides free workshops and advice for emerging writers. Get in touch with for more advice.

Dan is a twice-shortlisted novelist for the Wilbur & Niso Smith Best Unpublished Manuscript Prize and managing owner of The Open Book Editor, providing coaching and editing services for authors.

Connect with The Open Book Editor on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram: @openbookeditor and at
Connect with Dan on X (formerly Twitter): @dancrossauthor


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Editing, then, is the act of making your writing as comprehensible as possible without losing the original meaning.