Bats, blood, skeletons and fear of editing

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Halloween may bring out the creepy crawlies, but perhaps you’re already dealing with a monster: fear of editing

It’s not often that my newsletter goes out on Halloween, so I want to mark the occasion with a post on fear.

Not fear of writing, which I’ve written about before. Not fear of bats, blood, skeletons or witches, either. Today I want to focus on fear of editing.

Editing is top of mind for me right now because I’m currently teaching a 21-day course on it. Many people struggle with editing and find it frightening or frustrating. In most cases, the heart of the problem is they don’t have a system for editing. Instead, they just read and re-read their text with the vague intent of making it better.

But in many ways, editing is so much more important than writing. Why? Two reasons:

First, it’s the only time we can actually improve the quality of our writing. Some people try to write better by using an outline. (I find this strategy usually backfires. For me, mindmapping is the only way to go.) Others seek better quality by writing more slowly or mindfully, but this effort usually doesn’t work either. The more we think about doing a better job with our writing, the worse and more self-conscious it usually becomes.

Second, editing is the single most important step of the whole writing process. It’s the last thing we do before handing our writing over to other people to read. It’s also our only chance to address flaws and imperfections, whether in style (grammar, word choice, sentence structure) or content.

The high stakes of the game cause some people to seize up. “I can’t do it,” they say. “The pressure is too intense.”

If that’s the way you feel about editing, here are nine strategies that will help:

1-Evaluate the risks: We often don’t have terribly realistic ideas about things we fear. But consider: How do the risks of editing compare with the risks of walking in the savannah with lions, cheetahs and elephants? And, for that matter, how do the risks of editing compare with the risks of driving when two out of three motorists are involved in an injury accident during their lives? Sure, you will make the occasional editing mistake (there’s no avoiding it!), maybe even some big mistakes, but the risk of harm is much lower than many things you are probably already doing without a second thought.

2-Start small: Many people get into trouble because they start too big. If they need to edit a book, for example, they look at the whole book (usually a minimum of 60,000 words!). That’s just silly. Instead, start with a chapter, a page, or even a paragraph. Start small and see how it goes. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Don’t set a big, impossible goal for yourself. With time, you will become more comfortable with editing and you’ll get better at it, too. You’ll also find that it’s much easier to persuade yourself to sit at your desk for 30 minutes rather than for three hours.

3-Imagine a positive outcome: I’m often unduly cautious. I prepare for every worst-case scenario that’s remotely possible. This habit serves me well on the few occasions when things go really wrong. But it doesn’t help me in the least when, most of the time, things are going well. Instead of imagining that your edit is going to be disastrous, imagine that you’re going to be able to improve your work and make it even more useful for readers. Visualizing success is not enough — in itself — to guarantee success. But it will dramatically improve your odds.

4-Meditate: Meditation helps give us detachment from the worries of publication (which is usually the driver of fear of editing.) Will my boss like this piece? What about my editor? What about my readers? These worries and concerns can drag us off track and keep us inappropriately preoccupied when we should simply be editing. The process of meditating teaches us to be detached from our own thoughts and worries.

5-Spend more time outdoors: According to a 2019 study, spending time in nature enhances our well-being and makes us more resilient. And resilience helps us overcome fear and anxiety, allowing us to get more out of new experiences and opportunities. Who knew that walking in a park or a forest could make you a better editor?

6-Monitor your breathing: Many writers forget to breathe when they write — I call this state “writing-apnea,” and it leads to a whole host of physical issues. When we forget to breathe, our autonomic nervous system assumes something is terribly wrong and our heart rate increases. Our palms become sweaty, and we instinctively become more anxious. But breathing isn’t hard work! Keep reminding yourself to do it. It will make you calmer.

7-Be sure to separate the various jobs relating to writing. These include:

  • Researching
  • Thinking and planning
  • Writing
  • Editing

So, for example, when you’re editingdon’t do anything else. Just edit. And the same rule applies when you’re writing. Pay no attention to the quality of your words, because that’s something you should do only when you’re editing. Do only one thing at a time, and you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding at both.

8-Become more comfortable with making mistakes. I addressed this issue in detail in a blog post I wrote in 2013. That post contains a terrific four-minute video you might want to watch. It’s by scientist Jennifer Gresham from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. Gresham argues that fear of failure, “starts with our parents and then it’s our teachers and then it’s our bosses and pretty soon it’s ourselves…” I particularly like the ritual that Gresham suggests. Every day she and her daughter remind each other: “It’s a great day to make a mistake.” Gresham says: “That’s where the learning is. Until you prioritize learning over performance, you’ll prevent yourself from having eureka moments.”

9-Don’t carry the whole burden by yourself. The pressure of being a good editor is enormous. But it’s fiendishly difficult to evaluate the quality of your own work. You might think about hiring a professional editor, if you can afford it. Or, if you can’t, consider exchanging editing duties with a friend. Let them edit your writing while you edit theirs. Or use beta readers to help you.

While fear of writing gets a lot of publicity, I think fear of editing is a much more serious problem. Don’t let it curtail you! Take these steps so you can learn to edit confidently and calmly.

Visiting a graveyard should always be spookier than editing.


My video podcast last week addressed how to juggle different types of writing. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form  and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.


Do you suffer from fear of editing? How do you deal with it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. If you comment on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/23 I’ll put you a draw for a digital copy for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

Scroll to Top