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  • [Reality Check] Self Editing or “Never Submit Your First Draft”
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[Reality Check] Self Editing or “Never Submit Your First Draft”
Written by
Zetta Brown
July 2012
Written by
Zetta Brown
July 2012

You have just finished writing your manuscript and you are determined to see it published.

You immediately start submitting it to publishers, editors, and literary agents only to get rejection after rejection after rejection.

You decide that these “literary gatekeepers” are complete idiots, all of their taste is in their mouths, and the only way to get your work out to the public is to self publish.

You spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars using one of the many “self” publishing platforms available to choose from that offer dubious editorial support—if any.

Your book is released. You get some sales. Your book is trashed.

Not just trashed, but well and truly rubbished. Authors don’t just write books, we give birth to babies that happen to be books, and if your book really was a baby in this scenario, the world would have witnessed a crime against humanity.

But before you blame everyone and their ancestors all the way back to the Primordial Soup, take a look in the mirror. Chances are, you sabotaged yourself way before your book got published.


Because you were in such a hurry to get published, you didn’t consider whether or not your manuscript was ready to publish.

Before anyone accuses me of taking a dig at people who self publish, I haven’t made my point yet, and the point is this: never submit your first draft.

Too many people who want to be published make the mistake of submitting their first draft, or worse, a work-in-progress (aka a WIP), and after receiving many rejections decide to “go it alone.” Not only are they certain that they have written the greatest story ever, but it has to be released immediately because the world cannot exist another minute without this literary masterpiece in mass circulation.

But what many of them fail to realize is that they could have gotten that publishing contract or better sales and reviews if they self published if they had taken the time to present their best effort. To achieve this, the work has to be edited and polished so that it shines and is no longer a diamond in the rough.

And the first step of the editing process is self editing.

“Writing is rewriting” is the motto of many published authors, and if you want to join them, you should add this to your writing mantra if your aim is to be a published author—and not just a poseur or a wannabe. You have got to respect the craft that is writing.

Don’t submit your first draft. Submit your final draft, and that draft may be the last of a long line of drafts or even a second or third draft if the writing is polished.

If you feel that your self-editing skills are weak, strengthen them by educating yourself or taking formal writing and editing classes. If that idea is too intimidating or if you believe you’ve done all that you can, enlist (read: hire) a professional editor to help you polish your work before you start shopping it around. And if you really can’t be bothered with editing at all, do the world a favor and hire a talented ghostwriter who cares for humanity too much for it to be assaulted by crap writing.

If you don’t have the money to hire a professional editor, you need to find someone whose opinion you trust when it comes to the field/genre in which you write and has a solid understanding of the type of writing you are doing. Writing fiction is different from nonfiction writing, academic writing, and business writing. If your editor doesn’t understand this, find another editor. Finding your favorite English teacher from your days at school and getting them to edit may not be the best choice. 

You will notice how I said you should get the help of an editor before you submit your work seeking publication.  I believe I have said before that the people making the decisions are more likely to accept your work if they feel that very little is left for them to do before getting it on the market. This saves the publisher money, the book gets on sale faster, you start earning a royalty sooner, and everyone is happy. If your book is picked up by an agent, the agent finds a publisher for it faster, you get a publishing contract, you and your agent start earning and splitting your royalty sooner, and everyone is happy. Or, if you self publish, people will buy your book, enjoy it, recommend it, and you make all the money and you will be happy.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

If you’re serious about your craft, I suggest reading Revision and Self Editing by James Scott Bell to get you in the frame of mind of putting your best work forward.

Believe me. Your (future) readers will appreciate you for it.


©2012. Zetta Brown. If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk or her other blogs: Random Thoughts, Full-Bodied (Book) Blog.

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  • Jeane Daly

    I couldn't agree more. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our story we forget about our audience. We know the cast of characters, where the story is headed, but have we made that clear to the reader? Did we leave out explanations, times, places, events? It takes at least 3 rewrites for me to clear up all the details. In order to do this I have to have someone with a critical eye, rip the story apart, stab me in the heart, and hopefully tell me it's ready to go.  Jeane Daly

  • Kimberly Llewellyn

    I agree, Soniah! When I start tweaking tiny things then tweaking them back to their original way, or when I create errors in my story from overtweaking, then it's time to, "back away from the manuscript..." :)

  • Soniah Kamal

    I think the hardest part of editing/revising is knowing when you are finally done and that this is your final draft. Perhaps when you begin to agonize over itty-bitty diction rather than the bigger issues of structure and character consistency? Because I always find there's something else I can do, then end up re-adding the very something I just took out:)

  • Geri Givens Taylor

    After a day's writing, I use StyleWriter 4 to edit my work.  I have it set up for FICTION and PUBLIC but it still tends to edit my work like a business report.  I have managed to work my way around that and ignore many of their suggestions However, it does encourage me to look over my work sentence by sentence. Also, SW4 is far better than Word's Spell/Grammar Check at catching many misused words.  I am not adverstising SW4, I am just saying I find it a great tool to have in my tool box.  There are plenty of other editing software programs out there.

  • Tiffany Jackson

    Ha, "You decide that these “literary gatekeepers” are complete idiots," that's exactly how I felt. Thanks for this!!!

  • Tonya Rice

    Zetta, thank you for this post. I'm still in the middle of my rewrite; after this point, I KNOW I've got at least one more purge through it before I submit it to an editor. Even as I work on it, finding an editor is in the forefront of my mind. As a former copyeditor, I believe it's the most necessary part of the process. It's got to be done before I even think of sending it to an agent OR even uploading to a self-publishing vehicle. Additional sets of eyes prior to publishing are paramount!

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Similar to several of you that have commented, I am still re-working my first novel while I pen my second one.  Every new set of eyes digs up another valuable suggestion or a newbie mistake.  I think back to my first 4 beta readers that received the first draft, and I'm embarrassed!  I'm on my fourth draft, and I've had several professionals and my critique group look at various sections. However, I'd like to get one final professional edit from someone who lives, breathes, and eats the Urban Fantasy / Paranormal genre.  Any suggestions out there on someone or how to find someone who can help me make it publication ready?  Or at least help me get ready for a November Pitch conference I am attending?

  • Marti Rulli

    Delete Comment

    My first book became a bestseller in true crime for 3-8 months, and also became the #1 search at Amazon three various times for the publicity it generated on a high profile case, and I had tried for years to get my manuscript published before finally adhering to a seven-month, virtual non-stop editing stint to re-write and edit. After the grueling work, my manuscript had been accepted by the first publisher to read the manuscript and a decent advance was offered. I worked with another author a year later who claimed, "Writing is NOT editing." She believed in NO editing and needless to say, we soon parted ways. One NaNo work of hers is published sans editing and the reader definitely suffers.  I am now working on a manuscript and I've rewritten every chapter at least  three times already. Editing is the most important part of the process of writing, the MUST-DO of writing. Editing IS writing. No matter how you try to fool yourself that you've got what it takes to avoid editing, well you might be fooling only yourself because astute readers will never tolerate your work. Spare the literary world. There are no short cuts when it comes to writing. Looking back on my successful book, I wish I had edited ten times as much!

  • Debra Baker

    I just had a block lifted and I am writing my novel again and it feels good and I want to show it to someone and have rave reviews and an advance but that isn't going to happen until I'm *known* which means I need to finish my first draft and self-edit and share ideas with others and exactly how do you know when it is ready for another set of eyes?

  • Betty Wilson

    I couldn't agree with you more. Writing is definitely re-writing and re-writing again until it hurts and your MS feels finished. Then of course you edit it several more times before you send it to a professional editor who will correct all those pesky little things you can't see. 

  • Hunter Emkay

    Timely advice for me too. I'm on my third draft, but feel the pressure to get it out there - which I'll not succumb to. I'm sick to death of my own manuscript, but know I want it still better. It's nice to hear the examples from others in comments also.

  • Zetta Brown

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! It's good to know that there are writers out there who can see why this is important. I can't tell you how sad (or annoyed, depending on my mood) I feel when I get a full manuscript submission that is clearly a first draft.

    @Linda Brady - I'm a SMU graduate (B.A. English/Creative Writing) and what I learned there I still draw upon today.

    @LaWaughn - good for you! By taking the time to polish your work now will benefit you in the future. :) 

  • Kimberly Llewellyn

    Kudos to Zetta for such sound advice. We writers are so excited by our projects that too often we dash them off before the work is ready. Agents and editors get swamped with submissions following NaNoWriMo(.org) after every November because writers pen their stories in one month (which I've done!) but then immediately send out the first draft. Revision is key! So when you finish your WIP, be sure to revise as Zetta suggests, then set the work aside for a considerable length of time to let it cool. When you return to it one more time, you'll see the work that will still need to be done to polish your story. Critique partners help, too! Thanks, Zetta!

  • Faith Freewoman

    I've discovered another compelling reason to get your editing done before you submit. I support my writing habit by editing, and signing up for the freelance editor lists of several publishers was part of my plan. Until I found out what some smaller publishers are paying freelance editors these days. A pittance!

    Then I complained to a friend who subcontracts to a larger organization, and he began to describe some new techniques being forced on him by the organization to speed up his work and which, of course, slow it down and make it harder to catch everything.

    If you haven't already noticed that even big New York publishers' books are starting to look sloppy, pay attention to the next several books you read. Now you know why it's happening. Economic pressures are ramping up the constraints on every phase of getting a book out to the public.

    If you want it done right, you need to pay close, personal attention to every step of the process, and develop a support system you know you can trust to help you look your best!

    Cheers, Faith

  • Rev. LaWaughn Rouse

    Hello Zetta,

    I've been away a long time writing and getting my manuscripts completed. I was waiting to retire which I just did this pass June and I have been getting things in order for the next step in the publishing process. Since I'm such a novice at this your information about the first draft submission is great advice and I have brought the book you suggested. Thank you so much and prayerfully soon I will have something that those who love to read would want to read.

  • Barbara Shoff

    I am fortunate enough to be involved with a local professional writing group. All members of WordWeavers take our craft seriously.  We support each other by critiquing and editing each others work.  As a result, we now boast several published authors.  We warn new members, the critiques we give are suggestions meant to improve their work. They need to develop thick skins before submitting a manuscript for review. We may review one person's manuscript several times before declaring the work "ready."  We even debate which special niche would make the work most marketable.  A good writer's group can help anyone hone their talents.  Forget the "clubs" that simply read your work and say, "I loved it."  They are great for your ego--- if you don't really want something that sells. 

  • Linda East Brady


    I had the good fortune to know this rule when I wrote my first novel, thanks to watching a couple successful and sage writer friends at work. Could my initial attempts at getting that book out there have been a bit more polished? Sure -- but each time it came back to me, whether with helpful and detailed notes (thanks go out especially to SMU Press for their truly helpful notes and advice) or just the standard-issue rejection letter, I went over it again and made changes. 

    And of course, there were rewrites to be done once it was accepted, too, which I was more than willing to do.

    Since those times, I have been in a place where other writers have asked me advice and this is the first thing I tell them. It is definitely the mark of the dilettante to be unwilling to rework your work – it is amazing how many are unwilling to do so.

    Also, I have to say it is all but mandatory to get another set of knowledgeable eyes to look it over. No one can self-edit after a point. Especially when you have worked a section over and over, you really don't see the missing links and errors anymore.

  • Stephanie Scott

    This post is further proof that writing help exists -- it's all a simple google search away. What is more difficult to change, is the need people have for instant recognition and "fame." Some people stand in line for hours or days for American Idol, only to be embarrassed on live TV (if they're lucky -- the majority are simply sent home with no air time) and writers who want to be the next [insert self-published miracle millionaire story here] without doing the work required to create a quality book. The more we get this message out there -- blogs and writing communities exist with lots of FREE advice, crafting advice and resources -- and many freelance editors are available for all sorts of range in costs. The information is there, it's whether each person is willing to admit they need it!

  • Pamela Olson

    In hindsight, my first agent submitted my manuscript when it wasn't quite ready four years ago. (I was also champing at the bit to get it out.) We had some interest, but then the financial crisis hit and that was that. I worked on it for three more years, got another agent, and finally it's getting into fighting shape to be published in spring 2013. And I think the political atmosphere is more ripe for it now. Patience is incredibly hard for writers (at least it was for me), but so important! More than I could have imagined after working six months and thinking, "OK, where's my advance?" :) Four years later...

  • DeLani R. Bartlette

    Well said, Zetta. I review self- and independently-published books for Kirkus, and I'm sad to say that 99% of my reviews really rip them a new one. Why? Not because I'm a vengeful B-word intent on spreading dispair and misery. Because it's painfully obvious these authors didn't edit their work. I, myself, have just finished the first draft of my memoir, which took me two years to write. I would *never* consider sending it out without professional editing & revision.

    Good writers only make it *look* easy. It's all in the process.

  • Julie Luek

    I read a similar post not long after I wrote and ahem, yes submitted, my draft.  I had reread and made changes but no where near what I should have done.  The post I read kindly suggested this was a typical newbie mistake.  Guilty as charged.  I had one agent respond that she liked my premise but .... How I appreciate both her affirmation and her time to make a suggestion!  Thanks for reinforcing the importance of rewrites.  I will also make the book you suggest my next investment.  

  • Laurel Wilczek

    Excellent article. I'm on my third revision. Each time I've put the work through a round of self-editing I've discovered details that need to be addressed. Each time it comes out better. It's taking me a while to complete this novel, but I hope to have a novel I can be proud to claim is mine. :)

    The first draft is nothing compared to what I have on the worktable now. I have proof in my file how good your advice is.


  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Zetta, What an excellent article. As a self-publisher, I can't begin to tell you how many times I had to rewrite and revise my work and believe my writing has gotten better. Nevertheless, thank you for the valuable advise.

  • Wendi Nitschmann

    Great post! Just finished my first draft and after rereading it umpteen times, I still feel like it is just a skeleton.... I now need to flesh it out. Thanks for posting!

  • Zetta Brown

    Hi Jan,

    Yes, you need at least a second pair of eyes to go over your work and give you honest critique. If you have an editor or editor friend, they should give you constructive criticism, not destructive criticism. When someone hires me to edit their book, I'm not going to give lip service and say its great. I'm going to point out everything I see that could use improvement. Many authors write by committee and have various reading and critique groups go over their work at every stage, but these groups only work, in my opinion, if they provide comments that really do improve your writing.