I’m going to start with a rather bold statement today:
Writers cannot edit their own work beyond a certain point.
Yes, we may be able to fix crucial plot problems and catch quite a few spelling and syntax errors on our own, but after a while, no matter how sharp our eyes, how well-trained we are, how many times we read the story, we’re going to eventually stop seeing the problems.
How do I know this? Well, I see it a lot even in heavily edited manuscripts. But also, it just recently happened to me.
I gave one of my short stories to a friend a couple weeks ago as a sort of introduction to my writing. Since this story is currently making the submission rounds, I figured it was a good place to start. I’ve edited it to death, after all, so I was confident in sharing it. However, a few paragraphs into it, he looked at me and said, “You wrote the wrong ‘coarse’. ”
In other words, I’d written the wrong homophone.
At first, I thought, “I’ve already submitted it! What am I going to do?” (The answer is: nothing.)
Then I thought, “I’m an editor. How could I have missed that?”
Then I laughed. All of the Muses had read this story at one point or another and yet not one of them caught that mistake either. I myself have combed through the piece a thousand times.
But my friend—a non-native English speaker, in fact—saw it within seconds.
So what’s the moral of the story?
Get other people to read your work. Not just your writing buddies, not just your critique group. Find an assortment. Non-writers, for instance, may see the story more as a reader would see it. A programmer (as my friend is) is accustomed to noticing small errors and may be more detail-oriented (but in a different way than your average writing editor). Different people will see your story in different ways. You’re not obliged to implement all of their advice, but fresh perspectives may offer new insights. They may also save you from small embarrassments.
Now, if the literary magazine truly wants to publish my story, they’ll probably overlook the “course” error and allow me to fix it later, but proofreading is an essential part of the manuscript preparation process. When you think your work is as perfect and shiny as it can be, find someone who has not yet read the story to read through it again for you. The more people who read it, the better your chances of finding those lingering errors you no longer see.
Even editors need editors, after all.