Friday, June 19, 2015

How to Know When to Stop Editing Your Novel


You did it. You finished your novel. Well, at least the first draft. So you edit it for plot holes, then for sentence structure. Then for grammar and punctuation mistakes. NOW it’s finished. But wait, that one scene needs some tweaking. Okay, good. Just tighten the plot and maybe change that character’s hair color. There. It’s done. Almost. On second thought, the symbolism could use a lot of work….

And on and on it goes. The unending loop of editing and ‘minor’ fixes.

When I started writing, nobody warned me about this. Nobody said, “Hey, don’t get lost in the editing wheel! Books (and their authors) have died in there.” And I wish they had. Because I was laughably unprepared for what takes place after a writer finishes the first few stages of editing.

I didn’t know about the endless tweaking, the nit-picking changes, the addictiveness of reconstructing and embellishing scenes. And I had no idea how to tell when it was time to stop editing and just move on.

Much like the penrose stairs in Inception, a writer can trudge up and down the steps of editing their novel, never realizing that they’re not going anywhere.

It’s pathetic, really. Often we can’t tell that we’re going in circles and labor under the illusion that we’re going upwards towards perfection.

So how are we supposed to differentiate between a novel that needs more editing and a novel that needs to move to the next stage? Here are some flags that might be telling you to stop editing:
The thought of touching your novel makes you sick. This one is obvious. If you’ve gotten to the point where you have edited, reworked, and thought about this novel for so long that you’re sick of it, well, that probably means it’s time to be done.

You have unrealistic expectations. You’re waiting and waiting for your novel to become perfect. I hate to break it to you buddy, but your writing is never going to be perfect. I know this because I have a completed novel on my hands that I just sent out to an agent. It’s a great novel, but I still feel like it can use work. And of course it still can use work, but I had to accept that I’ve done all I can with it with the tools that I have. The same goes for you. After a certain point, you need to realize that you’ve done the best that you can for now. Let go of that utopian image you have for you novel. Perfectionism kills stories, bores readers, and drives writer's to drink....What? I'm talking about coffee, okay? Don't freak out. The point is this: your book is good. It does not have to be perfect. It just has to be better than it was before.

You are adding entire scenes and chapters rather than reducing the word count. Now, this rule only applies if you’ve already gone through several rounds of both macro and micro editing. If you have already made major changes to chapter structures and plot points, and yet you find yourself going back and adding more chunks of story, then there's something wrong. It either means you are grasping at reasons to not send your novel out into the world or you are being a crazy perfectionist (see above). Both are unhealthy. After you’ve gone through your major stages of editing, you shouldn’t still be making huge changes to the novel. You should either be condensing or walking away.

You haven’t taken a break from editing. You do a round of macro editing, let it sit for a few weeks, go back and do more macro editing, let it sit. If needed, macro edit some more and then turn to micro editing. After the micro editing, you let it sit for at least a month. If you don’t do this, you are going to end up way too close to your novel. No break means that you are going to be up-close and personal with your novel for far too long. You’ll start psychoanalyzing every character, going crazy over every sentence. You need to take a break, step back, and give both you and your novel some space. After that time is over, then you’ll be able to think more rationally about your novel and be able to logically decide whether it’s time to just move on.

You feel like you’re not moving anywhere. If you feel like your editing has hit a dead end and don’t know what to fix next, then you’re probably ready to be done. Seriously. When you notice that your editing isn’t necessarily making your novel better, or (horror of horrors) notice that it’s making the book worse, then shut it down. You’ve agonized over this enough.

You can read it without blushing at the thought of having others read it. This is a good indicator that your story is ready. Okay, so you may feel a bit uncomfortable letting others read it, but that is normal and very different from feeling actual embarrassment about your work as a writer. If the thought of letting somebody read your story doesn’t fill you with shame and if you don’t find yourself making excuses for it every time you send it to someone, then you should be fine.  

You’ve spent 10+ years on this novel. Dude. NO.

Making the decision to stop editing and send your baby book out to literary agents is difficult and scary. Many writers have the tendency to be crippled with insecurity and thus fall back on editing to postpone the inevitable. Don’t let that be you. It’s important to be able to recognize when it’s time to stop editing and move on. 

It's easy to get caught in the penrose staircase of editing. Try to stop and look for flags that might be trying to tell you that you're going in circles. They may not be as obvious as a lady who's dropped her stack of papers (what, you thought I'd let you leave without slipping in one last Inception reference?), but they are there. Just keep your eyes peeled. 

Have you ever finished a book? What made you realize that your novel was ready?

Related article:
5 Steps to Fighting Off Writer's Insecurity (And Your Overactive Inner Critic) 
Write What YOU Want To Write: Why You Shouldn't Follow The Current Writing Trend
Be A Writer, Not An Author
Controlling Your Plot Bunnies: How to Write A Novel From Start to Finish Without Getting Distracted

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19 comments:

  1. Great advice! Definitely agree.

    One thing I (stupidly) didn't realize before taking a publishing course is that even when the draft is "done" enough to send out, you will definitely be doing AT LEAST one, if not two or three, whole other revisions once it's picked up by an agent or sold to a publisher. It's really important to do your best to keep away from revision fatigue, so that you'll have the enthusiasm and energy to tackle it again (and again, and again) at the professional stage.

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    1. Exactly! Sending out your novel is just the first stage. It's important to keep in mind that more edits will be necessary. Thanks for the reminder!

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  2. Oh, baby...! Do I know what you're talking about! LOL. Great observations, though I have a feeling they won't be as easy to apply :) Am I right? I finished about six books, published one. I learned from my mistakes. Editing more than three rounds is insane. That's it: THREE ROUNDS. Letting the manuscript breathe between them, a couple of weeks. And that's that. But it depends on the writer - for instance, I am notoriously slow-going, because I also edit as I go along, so three rounds for me are more than enough. If I wrote the first draft in one go of 2-3 weeks (yes, there are writers, published ones, who can do that!), then I would probably edit for longer. So, I don't know. I guess common sense should be used too, Hannah :) Great post!

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    1. Yep, common sense is always the key. =) Three rounds is probably a good limit. I don't edit as I go, though, so I end up editing about 5 or 6 times. Which is lame. Maybe this time around I'll try some form of outline and then edit as I go. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. All good points, Hannah. I've just finished the third draft of my novel, and I can imagine how easy it would be to loop back around and go again. The first two drafts took about a year each. This last one took about 4 months. I've hired a good content editor, and have a little laundry list of potential changes to make, so there'll probably be a 4th draft that should take less than a month, to complete, but after that, it's off to a proofreader/line editor and into print. Otherwise I'll never get around to doing the sequels!

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    1. It sounds like you're on the right path. Go you, hiring an editor! This is a key step (particularly for indie authors, which I'm assuming you are) that a lot of authors ignore. I think that's awesome that you're doing sequels. I'm working on one myself, and they seem more difficult than the first book in a series. Maybe that's just me, though. =] Happy writing!

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  4. This was an awesome article, Hannah!! The moment I saw this come up in my inbox I read it. I've had these exact concerns as I'm editing my novels and this article practically read my mind! Loved your insightful points, as usual! :)

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    1. I'm happy you enjoyed it! I have a love-hate relationship with editing that I thought a lot of writers could identify with, which is why I wrote this post. Glad you found it useful!

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  5. Great advise! Confirms my constant self-reminder that I am not alone when it comes to editing and revising --it happens even with a simple poem!

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    1. Yep. It's funny how all writers experience almost the exact same problems even though we write in different genres and formats. Glad you found the post helpful!

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  6. This was a lot of great advice. I know it can be hard for writers to know when to stop editing. Even when they get sick and tired of it, they can continue to push through because they really want to make their poems and writing the best it really can be. But you have a lot of good points and I am going to bear them in mind for the future when I will be editing myself as well.

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    1. Right. It's important to be able to recognize when to stop editing and when to just suck it up and keep going. =) Good luck with your editing!

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  7. Great points! I definitely needed to hear this right about now :)

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  8. This is great!
    Editing can be tough. My editor always tells me that eventually you just have to let go. It can be hard to let go sometimes, but if you don't, you'll just drive yourself insane.

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    1. Sounds like you have an awesome editor who knows how to keep you sane. Every writer should have one of those. =) Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  9. When I wrote my first book, I wrote it at a furious pace and finished it in three months. I went through it twice to make sure that I got all the grammar errors and looked for better word choices. The second novel I wrote on and off over three years, so it turned out to be a much richer novel than the first one which ended up just being for practice. Because of the length of time between writings I often had to reread and revise as I was writing the first draft to make sure that things flowed with what I had written a year earlier. So when I began to revise the finished first draft, I had to edit both for plot holes as well as for grammar and word choice as my concept of the book had changed over the years. If I count the minor revisions as I was writing the novel as well as the final edit, I would say that I have edited it twice.

    But I guess it depends on how a person writes. In my case, if I don't know what direction a novel will take, I put it off until I am certain of its direction, as taking a wrong path can set the story completely off course and need a complete revision if I catch the error too late. I know other people are more comfortable with producing a first draft with little revision and then going back and making dramatic alterations. I am reluctant to keep editing or to stray from my original concept until I have had an agent look over my novel and offer his suggestions because my revisions from A to B might not matter if he offers C as an alternative. What I am curious about is how much revision an editor does to a novel after a writer submits what he considers to be his final product.

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    1. Your writing/editing process for your second book seems very similar to my current writing process. It takes a long time, but it's also interesting to watch the story morph into something new.
      I agree that most writers have very unique ways of crafting a story, so each editing approach will have to be slightly different.
      And yeah, I've always wondered about professional editors. They must have a set rule for how long they're willing to work on certain projects...? Maybe. I have no idea. =)

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  10. Ugg, you what's sad? I actually met a writer that is still editing their book and now it's 12 years that they won't let it go. I see them in the online cridics website I go to occasionally, they ask everyone for more critiques, more edits. But they never ask the most important person the one who started the book and knows what it should really be saying. Themselves.

    That makes me sad. :(

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