Monday, June 7, 2010

Know When to Stop Editing

I never finish any of my stories. At some point, I just quit. I've heard other writers say the same thing, and artists from every field will agree. Your work is never finished.

But eventually you want to send it out into the world. You want to blog it. Post it. Submit it. Sell it.

And to do that, you must stop writing!

My fellow writers, recall this piece of advice: Write a book, give it a revision, send it off, begin the next.

See how succinct that advice is? Send it off! It isn't perfect, nor will it be perfect with another revision. Begin the next! Keep writing. Don't get bogged down on one piece.

This is common advice, especially to unpublished authors. In fact, this is the advice I prefer myself. It will never be perfect, stop trying. On to the next. Make it better.

On the other hand, we have what seems to be conflicting advice: Your work -- and especially your submittal excerpt -- must be well-polished to make it beyond the agent/editor's slush pile.

This means more than a quick revision and send it off! It may mean lengthy beta reads and critiques and back-to-front rewrites.

So which one is the correct answer? One revision? Two? Six? Revise until you believe it is polished?

Both have their merits, but let me bring up an interesting addendum: Prior to publication, no matter the amount of revision you put into the work, your piece will go through editing and revision. Again. And possibly will face major rewrites. Or, worse still, regardless of the time spent editing, your piece will still never make it beyond the slush pile.

As writers we should find a happy medium between under- and over-editing prior to submittal.

Certainly the piece needs to be polished -- a shoddy piece will absolutely NOT make it beyond the slush pile -- but can you really expect a single writer, or even a group of freelance critics, to edit a piece to the same level as a large publishing house?

And don't forget the energy consumed editing a piece. It is time you could have spent working on a new piece, and we all have a limited amount of writing capital with which to spend on our work. Is it really wise to polish that old book, only to send it out to be rejected? Again.

Or is one more revision what it takes to make that old book hit the bookshelf in stores near you?

What are your thoughts? Do you over-revise? Under-polish? At what point do you stop and begin the next piece?

Me, I get going, write it, give it a revision (which can be significant), and send it out.

We'll see where that gets me. Which reminds me... I need to send some stuff out. My last submittals were back in October of 2009. Knowing when to stop submitting and give up writing is a whole nuther topic.

- Eric


Unknown said...

Oh, I definitely have a problem with over-revising. I'm onto my 6th draft of my novel and I'm hoping this will be the last time because I've been working way, way too long on it.

Julie Musil said...

Well, you definitely bring up a great point. I don't know the answer! I feel like my novel is done, and yet I keep tweaking it. So is it really not done? Or am I just avoiding the beginning of a new project? Hmmmm....

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I like your advice about a scene being 70% of where you like it before you move on to the next one. A worthy goal, to be sure.

Unknown said...

I'm definitely worried about not knowing when to quit editing, because I can be really OCD about that stuff. I think I will give it one major edit alone, one after betas (and maybe another one..!) and then send it out.

But it's a really valid point to sit back and realize it's never going to be perfect, and any editor is going to have their own feedback to give as well. That almost takes the pressure off!

Raquel Byrnes said...

I never know when my stuff is done. I tend to nit pick. I decided a few years ago to set a date and walk away at that point. I may frantically revise until then...I may not, but once I get to the "deadline" that is my sanity line that I won't cross. My husband is a big fan of this rule. =)

Eric W. Trant said...

Thanks all for commenting. I think 6 drafts is too many for me. I would never have Cheree's patience for that.

Like Julie says, though, I do think some people use never-ending revision as an excuse to delay a new project.

I'm OCD, too, Sarah. My doctor has even wanted to med me up for it, so it's the real deal. I have to limit myself or I'll consume the rest of my writing days with one eternal book.

I've never thought about a hard deadline, though, like Raquel's using. That actually is a GREAT idea.


Because DEADLINES are how the real world functions. Determine your project. Set a date. Meet the deadline. On to the next.

- Eric

dolorah said...

I have to agree with both sides of your split personality here Eric. Valid points on both sides, and equally appealing.

I discovered long ago that my stories (novels or shorts) will never be "completed" until they are published. Book one for me is truly my first novel, so I've spent a lot of time on revision; it's my practice novel and has taught me a lot about the craft of writing. I let the last set of revisions sit for several months to see if I even cared to submit it. Then I accepted a few offers to beta read for me, determined from the critiques what I wanted to give a serious look at, and sent the queries.

Revisions for the short stories have not been as involved before sending them out. Mostly because I think the quality of my skills isn't the issue, but the story and plot may not be to a publishers tastes. No help for that.

So maybe the answer is a little of both, and the Author just has to decide when to quit, and when to invest the time and energy into revision. I believe each author, if honest with themselves, will know when enough is enough.


Unknown said...

My problem is that for every three problems I fix, I create at least one more, so I'm never done editing.

Murr Brewster said...

It's just like gardening. You're going to have to go over the same territory weeding, and the third time through you notice the nice big plant in the middle has root rot and must come out, and adverbs are vining through the roses, and you might just as well sell the house and start over.

Sorry. I'm having trouble with the middle of my novel.

Nighfala said...

I have read plenty of books in which the author appeared to have written it, revised it, and sent it off 'as is.' Some were self-published, some weren't. Some may have represented the authors best work to date, some may have been rushed.

But they all had major flaws that made me cringe and lose interest halfway through. Some had plot issues, some had credibility issues, some had really bad writing, some had bad spell-checking.

They have all reinforced my commitment to keep revising my novel until I think it's really good. I don't care how long it takes, I want to not be embarrassed by it.

3 years, four months and counting....

Nighfala said...

And I also agree with Mary.

Revising is like trying to straighten out a bedspread. You tug one place straight, and new wrinkles appear somewhere else.

Eric W. Trant said...

Donna, I think you nailed it. Everyone is different, and everyone needs to know when enough is enough, and when too little is too little.

Mary, That was my point saying it'd never be perfect. Every fix = more problems. I learned this best in programming, with genuine deadlines. I noticed errors or bugs (minor irritants) during major fixes, but I couldn't get to them owing to deadline. For every bug you find, there are four you don't see.

Murr, I am in the process of killing my garden. I had this genius idea to use my manure bags as a grass barrier. But I forgot to poke holes for my seeds! This is literally true for my literal garden, but figuratively true for a bad story. Sometimes you have to dig it all up and start over because a weeding ain't gonna fix it. Good luck in the midsection.

Christine, Oh, I know about you and your revisions. You are not revising, you are rewriting. There's a difference. I don't think you're trying to fix an old piece so much as rewrite it into a better new piece.

- Eric

Nighfala said...

Eric, it started out as a revision, then it turned into a rewrite. Every pass it gets deeper. It's like digging for China... I may never find the bottom but it sure is fun to try.

Matthew MacNish said...

You make a great point but I find it interesting how my own definition of polished and ready and terms like that evolve as I learn more about publishing and communicate more frequently with other writers.

Eric W. Trant said...

Matt: Ditto. I am far more rigorous now that I am actually going after publication, not only with my editing and revising, but with my selection of topic to begin with.

- Eric

Patti said...

It's definitely a fine line that we walk between being good enough to get over the slush pile.

MBW aka Olleymae said...

haha that's an awesome picture!!

I'd say I over-revise. I just get bogged down because I don't feel like it's quite the way I want it. Plus I'm scared to death to really query. But you're right. There comes a point when you just have to send it off!!

Olivia J. Herrell, writing as O.J. Barré said...

I'm doing the edit-as-I-go method for my current WIP and, while I like the effect, it has definitely bogged me down. So much so that now I'm literally stuck in the 13k zone.

I think I'll set some firm deadlines and push through, maybe not edit for a bit and see where that takes me.

Thank you, Eric, and to everyone else, too!

~That Rebel, Olivia

Anonymous said...

I can't really say how many times I revise before I feel like I'm done on a piece. I revise as I write.
Sometimes I need a break from creating new scenes and I just need to go back, reread from the beginning and do some general edits of line/wording. I haven't done any major plot revisions or taking out huge scenes yet.
I'm sure I'll know it's done when it's done. I hope. I don't know! I'd rather over-revise than under-revise if I really had to pick tho. Sending out something that is less than perfect (in my own mind) seems wrong.

Anonymous said...

My problem is that I plot and outline a lot before writing. So sometimes I don't have the need to do a complete rewrite. And then I feel like I'm doing something wrong b/c some just pantz and then have to do major revising. I revise until I think it's the best my writing can be without further input. :) Great post. I think it went viral. :)

Andrew Markle said...

I think it's all about causality. You'll never make it perfect but at the very least you can make your work make sense. If your characters are doing things that goes against who they are: you have some revisions to do. If your world isn't believable: more rewriting. If your plot twists don't feel organic: keep working. But once you've got the cause and effect machine running smooth and your language is clear it's probably time to submit it and work on something else.

Lisa Gail Green said...

I think when you get to the point where you're just moving words and phrases around you are DONE. When you can't even focus anymore. You are right, it is a tough decision because we want it to be polished, but at the same time have to let go at some point!! Good post.