12 Common Mistakes Editors are Sick of Seeing

Know what editors are sick of seeing?

I interviewed a handful of professional editors to find out. Here, I’ve compiled a list of the most common mistakes they see writers make.

Once you know about these – and stop doing them – your editors will fall in love with you.

Why? Because instead of fixing the same problems over and over, they get to spend time editing stuff that matters. This is going to make your editing process much more rewarding…

#1 – What Kind of Editing Comes First?

There are many different types of edits. Generally, you can break them into a few categories:

  • Copy Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Developmental or Structural

So, it’s important to know what kind of editing you need. Many new authors get them done in the wrong order.

Which type comes first…?

Jess of Waxwing Book Studio compares it to home improvement:

“You don’t want to start with painting and then realize you wish you had moved a wall.

I’m always glad when writers understand that their manuscript needs at least a little bit of developmental editing before it’s ready for copy editing or proofreading.”

Developmental edits must come first. No amount of proofreading will fix a broken plot structure.

#2 – What is a Copy Editor’s “Least Favorite Question?”

When you hire an editor, usually it’s for a specific kind of editing. Unless they are selling a package of services, most editors don’t “do it all at once.”

When Sarah Kolb Williams, freelance editor and author of How to Hire an Editor, gets hired for basic copyediting…

this is her absolute least favorite question:

“What did you think of my book?”

Sarah explains why:

“First, it takes time and focus I haven’t budgeted for to formulate a response that does justice to the question; when I copyedit, my focus is on the individual elements that go into a story, not the story itself, so it takes a lot of extra time to come up with meaningful feedback.

Beyond this, the question concerns me because it’s just the wrong time in a manuscript’s production to expect an editor to propose anything potentially disruptive. This should be taken care of before copyediting.”

To be clear, Sarah does far more than simple Copy Editing.

So if you hire an editor for a specific task, it’s not fair to expect complete answers outside the scope of work.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Your Writing Goals

#3 – Don’t Expect Your Editor to “Do it All”

Here’s something I want from all of my stories:

  • Perfect grammar
  • Sentences that flow beautifully
  • Exciting, intertwining plots
  • A world with 100% factual correctness
  • Addicting characters

But I never expect one editor to do it all in a single pass.

When you hire an editor, you’re hiring them for a specific purpose. Most editors will look at a combination of things, but most editors will be focus on a one or two forms of editing on each pass.

When you hire an editor for a developmental edit, don’t expect them to send you back a perfect, ready-to-publish novel – grammar, line edits, etc.

#4 – How many Edits Do You Need, Really?

Editing is a service.

You must budget for it.

But that doesn’t mean you have to drain your bank with dozens of edits.

Ellen Brock, a professional novel editor, gives a very realistic answer:

“The number of edits you will need before getting your novel to a publishable level will vary greatly from writer to writer.

If you send an editor the first draft of your first novel, it’s likely you will need several rounds of edits before you’ll be ready to query.

For most writers, this will be cost prohibitive, so it’s important to be aware going in that a single round of editing on a rough draft may not get you much closer to being ready to query.

If you’re knowledgeable about writing and you’ve used a few beta readers and gone through several rounds of your own revisions, most writers will only need one to three rounds of editing before they’ll be ready to query.”

Oh! She also runs an annual “Novel Boot Camp” that’s free to join. Check it out here.

row of old books on a shelf

#5 – Why Your First Edits Should Be Free

I asked Ellen what she wished new writers knew. She stressed the importance of tapping your “free resources” first, and only hiring an editor when it’s absolutely necessary.  

“I wish more clients utilized free resources like beta readers, critique groups, writing websites, and blogs before hiring an editor.

Nobody wants to pay an editor only to be told the manuscript needs a total overhaul, so make sure you do what you can before paying for help.”

Why Free Peer Edits are Necessary

Liam from Invisible Ink Editing strongly agrees.

In fact, some editors won’t even take your work unless you’ve been through some form of peer editing.

Here’s why:

“We typically don’t accept authors who haven’t gone through this important stage, because it’s a waste of time and money to book a professional editor when no one else has objectively looked at the manuscript (for free).

#6 – Be Careful of “Immediate Turn Around”

So you just finished your novel.

You’re thrilled.

You hunt down an editor and shove your manuscript into their inbox… only to find that they’re busy.

Why You Need to Start Talking to Editors Early

Once again, here’s Liam to point out why this is the case:

“The top mistake writers make when booking our services is to not get in touch early enough in the process.

Our team is usually booked three to four months in advance, and we so frequently have authors asking us to start editing ASAP and turn around the final product in three to six weeks.

It’s so much better when we have people message us well in advance, and flexible deadlines will make it so your editor doesn’t have to rush the job.”

You can find Liam at Invisible Ink Editing. Better start querying him soon!


#7 – Know Your Editor’s Specialty/Genre

A couple of editors yelled at me while I was writing this.

Okay, they didn’t yell, so much as give me a string of incredibly polite, but very firm “No, thank you’s.”

They didn’t want to be associated with my blog. Why?

Because I lean too much into Science Fiction and Fantasy. Remember, most editors are booked. They can’t afford to grab even a hint of attention from anyone outside of their chosen genres.

What Does Your Editor Specialize In?

Are they a genre specialist? Do they prefer non-fiction? Do they only edit in a certain way?

In J. Thorn’s case, he specializes in a specific kind of story writing…

“As a certified Story Grid editor, I would expect writers seeking my services to have read The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. He developed the methodology and published the book specifically for writers who want to discover “what good editors know.”

Since this is the approach I use in my work, time spent with a potential client is much more valuable if they’ve read this book before contacting me so that we’re speaking the same language and getting the most out of our conversation.

#8 – The #1 Writing Mistake Editors See…

“In terms of actual writing, the number-one issue we see is “telling vs. showing.”

It’s not enough to be able to tell a good story – you need to be able to show it to the reader through actions, descriptions, and characterization.

We do a lot of coaching and training around this issue, because it’s so common.

This problem is so common, multiple other editors had to comment on it–including freelance editor, Dickson Telfer.

For example…

“’Joe was a very angry person.’

Let the reader see his anger, don’t just tell us he’s angry. ‘Very angry’ to one person could be quite different to the next.

If Joe smashes a glass off a wall, shouts so loud that his dog pees the carpet and then puts his fist through a door, this shows us the extent of his anger. This is much more effective for the reader and keeps them involved in the action.”

#9 – New Writers: Stop Switching Tenses!

Here’s Dana Lee from Lee Clarity Consulting:

“What I wish authors would stop doing?

Switching back and forth between first person and third person, sometimes in the same paragraph.

Same with present tense and past tense in first person.

Decide ahead of time. I know it can be difficult. Another possibility if they tend toward first person is to use the ### or other section break when switching POV.”

#10 – Quick Writing Fixes

While we’re talking about mistakes editors keep seeing…

Dickson Telfer said there were a few writing mistakes with easy fixes to be aware of:

“Unnecessary qualifiers. E.g. there is no difference between ‘sitting still’ and ‘sitting very still’.

“Vague language. E.g. ‘There appeared to be no doors’. Unless the character is on LSD, this pretty much means there are no doors. If there appeared to be no doors initially and then doors appear, that’s fine, but ‘There appeared to be no doors’ on its own gives the impression the writer isn’t entirely sure what’s going on, so what chance does the reader have?

“Subjective language in narrative. E.g. ‘Gloria was beautiful.’ Again, ‘beautiful’ to one person could be quite different to the next. Describe her and let the reader decide, or cover it in dialogue.”

reading a book on an e-reader


#11 – Reading to Write Better

A good writer is an avid reader.

But a great writer takes the time to read deeply. A great writer reads for answers.

Why You Must Read in Your Genre

Savannah Gilbo, a developmental editor and book coach, tackles this one:

“I encourage every writer to grab their favorite book and figure out why you love it so much.

Ask yourself:

  • How did the author hook you into their story?
  • How did they make you care about the protagonist?
  • How did they rachet up the tension throughout the middle of the book?
  • How did they weave in subplots?

If you’re trying to learn how to write better scenes, pick a scene in your favorite novel and study it.

  • What’s the structure like?
  • How do the events of the scene move the story forward?
  • How does the protagonist change from the beginning of the scene to the end?

I’m an editor, but I’m a writer, too, and nothing improved my understanding of story structure more than deconstructing my favorite novels and figuring out WHY they worked and WHAT made them resonate with me so much.”

#12 – Something Every Writer Should Hear…

You are not alone.

This is the sentiment Savannah wants to make clear to all writers.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help with your writing.

If you don’t understand story structure, or how to create a compelling character, or build a believable world, ask for help!

Join a writer’s group, reach out to someone with a writing blog, work with a book coach or a developmental editor – you don’t have to go at it alone, and needing help is nothing to feel embarrassed about!”


Looking for an Editor?

I need to take a moment to thank all of the editors who contributed to this article.

What better way than to showcase their editing services and specialities?

So, if you’re looking for a responsive, passionate editor to make your writing better, check out this list:

Liam, founder and chief editor at Invisible Ink Editing. Invisible Ink performs all three major forms of editing, and can even help you produce an Audiobook!

Jess, Founder of Waxwing Book Studio. Waxwing specializes in consulting, developmental editing, and book proposals.

Sarah is a freelance editor and author of How to Hire an Editor. You can find her book here!

Savannah is a Writer, Developmental Editor, and a Book Coach. You can find her services here. She is also a certified Story Grid editor.

Dickson’s services can be found here. He specializes in proofreading and line editing, and has some pretty great testimonials from his clients.

Dana from Lee Clarity Consulting specializes in proofreading, general editing – and she is known for her quick turnaround when polishing manuscripts. Contact her here.

J. Thorne is a certified Story Grid editor. He is also the founder of The Author Copilot, where he personally helps authors formulate — and execute — your writing plan.

Ellen is a professional novel editor. She also runs a free annual workshop for writers. You may have also seen her on YouTube!

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