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Self-Editing: When is Enough, Enough?

I often hear stories of writers who edit the same book over and over and over. They spend months, sometimes years rewriting and editing one book.

When do we say enough is enough and move on to the next project?

Writing friend Sherrinda asked that question a couple of weeks ago: “What if I am just too lazy to do the hard work of revising? What if I don't have what it takes? When you were first starting, what did you do? Revise and revise that first one or did you move on?” Her questions got me thinking (I love when that happens!).

First, we should always consider self-editing part of the job of writing. If we haven’t gone through the three basic steps of self-editing mentioned in the last post, then we need to before moving on.

However, when we finish the editing process, we often harbor a fear that our manuscript isn’t “ready.” If you’re like me, you probably find mistakes to fix every time you read anything you write.

I self-edited The Preacher’s Bride extensively soon after I wrote it and then again about a year later. I also hired a freelance editor to line-edit it. Most recently, it’s gone through in-house rewriting and line-editing. Even with all that work, there are times when I still can’t help wondering if it’s “good enough.” When it hits the shelves in the fall, I’m sure even then I’ll be able to open it up and find things I wish I could change.

Most of us experience doubts about our books. Sometimes, the doubt is good because it causes us to re-evaluate whether our books are indeed ready to send out. But sometimes doubt acts as an anchor that weighs us down and keeps us from moving forward.

How then, can we tell when we’re truly ready to stop self-editing a project and move on? When is doubt helpful to our writing careers and when is it hurtful? Here are a few of my thoughts. I don’t claim to be the expert, so make sure you chime in with your advice in the comments.

Maybe it’s time to move on. . .

• . . . when it’s the first book we’ve written. The first and second books we write will probably end up being our practice books. They’re the ones we write out of the deep well of our creativity, when we’re blissfully unaware of fiction-writing basics. And that’s okay. That’s the job of the early books—to help us discover our inner creator and solidify the joy of the writing process. Sometimes the first books aren’t meant for anything but that.

• . . . when editing is mostly rewriting. Substantive edits (aka rewrites) are a major part of the self-editing process. We’ll need to add, delete, and overhaul scenes. We can tighten the threads, sew new ones here and there, and switch things around. But the longer we rip and repair, the greater our chances of the finished product coming out looking frayed and shabby. If we get to a point where our story needs too much overhaul, we may have to consider starting over, re-plotting and re-planning for a tighter weave (or moving on to the next story idea and learning from our mistakes).

• . . . when we’re putting all our hopes for publication into one book. My agent tried to sell two of my books to Bethany House. They only bought one of them—The Preacher’s Bride (and contracted me for two more different ones). What if I’d only had the one they didn’t want (which I actually considered a better story)? If we get stuck on just one book, what if it’s not our break-in book? We’ll expand our chances if we finish editing and then move on to the next book.

• . . .when we’ve lost the joy of writing. Notice I didn’t say, “When it’s no longer fun.” Editing isn’t always fun. Sometimes it’s pure torture. But when editing a particular book begins to zap our joy in writing, then perhaps it’s time to shelf that book for a time. When we’re in the trenches of editing, we can lose perspective. Time and distance often help us regain it.

Your turn. What are your thoughts? When’s enough, enough? How do you decide when it’s time to move on to the next project?

48 comments:

  1. Honestly, I literally get the warm and fuzzies for a short spell, and then go numb in prep for submission and possible rejection--a defensive measure, you see. I must get my head examined. :-/

    Have a great weekend. : )

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  2. These are all really good points. After I write my draft, I usually go through for content and I edit lines as I go because I'm sadly anal. :-) Then I give it to writer friends. Then I input their crits. Then I wait a week to a month and work on something else. After I've been away from the story, I print it up and go through it again. I always find nice big mistakes that way. LOL I fix those, maybe send it to someone else to read and then I force myself to be done.
    So far that process has worked for me, but I'm open to change. :-)

    Like you, I find things to change EVERY time I read my stuff. Very annoying. *grin*

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  3. This is an amazing post. You know, you could combine all your posts and you'd have an awesome writing help book.

    I totally agree with all of your points. My first two books are sitting on my hard drive. I haven't showed them to RAchelle, nor will I ever show them to Rachelle. They were awesome practice and a great way to learn and grow. But they aren't going to be on any book store shelves.

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  4. What a wonderfully balanced approach to a very tricky subject, especially what you say about the first and second books - for most of us, if we ever do "make it" (whcih, sadly, statistics say most of us won't), it will be with the 7th, 8th, 9th whatever book we write. We have to accept the early ones are for learning, and there comes a time when you learn more by starting something new than carrying on working on the same thing.

    I tend to call self-editing a day when the improvements that come with each edit are no longer qualitative but quantitative - then it's time to let the thing loose, because anything you do subsequently isn't going to be the dealmaker or breaker.

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  5. From an artist's point of view, I think the ability to move on comes with confidence and experience. Sure, I do a piece out a couple of times. Try this, try that. At some point, I have to pick the piece I like best and move on.

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  6. I'm a stubborn cuss because I do keep going back to that first book and fixing it:-) BUT! I've also moved on and wrote another book. And now I'm moving on and writing another book after that. I'd love to have "options" in case one doesn't fly. But I REALLY hope my first book does fly because I have partials of two others that are sequels that I love love love, and really want to be able to write them! I guess that's partially why I'm so stubborn about book one. THat, and everytime I look at it, a little voice from the book says, "Don't give up on me Krista! Pretty please!" Now, how can an author say no to that, I ask you!

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  7. I love your last point, Jody. Although I was kind of forced to take a two and a half month break from writing during the winter and I HATED it, I also was able to distance myself from a story I had been working on since last spring. That distance was necessary, becasue now that I am back in this story, I have found a whole new love for it.

    I was actually thinking about Katie's point just the other day. I do see a book on writing in your future. You have an incredible passion for writing that carries into each and every post. Thank you for that!!

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  8. This was perfect for me today, Jody. I'm thankful you mentioned that our first manuscript or even our second are most probably practice books. It gives value to the work I did on my first--which has a great and unique story, but was horribly written--and the second one.

    I kind of felt like a failure after both of them. But now, working on my third and almost through the final stages you mentioned yesterday, I think I've grown. And I surely intend on revisiting those other two manuscripts at some point.

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  9. Thanks for this post, Jody. It's helped me put my latest draft in perspective. I'll better be able to say, I've done my best and now it's time to move on to the next book. Which has been begging me to start for quite some time anyway :-)

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  10. You made me feel good:) I have put away my first book after realizing it was just good for practice. The second one was better and had some interest. The third and fourth-well-I'm getting it slowly as I finally understand what it takes. But knowing when to give up on a book and move forward is important.

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  11. I can always suck it up for the sake of the characters and the story. If even those have gotten old as an apple doll, maybe it's time to move on and work on something else.

    And great point about having more than one to pitch. I'm pumped--I'm thinking maybe, just maybe I'll have my WIP not only written but cleaned up before ACFW...which means I'll have two to pitch. Woo. Hoo.
    ~ Wendy

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  12. I never leave here without things to ponder. I like the idea of "practice books." Turn inwardly and improve your skills, worry less about publishing...at least in the beginning..

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  13. Jody, I just love the idea of "practice books". I feel our first few books get us ready for the start of our writing journey. Its as though we are just finding our feet.
    I have spent a lot of time editing one particular book at the cost of my other book. I tend to find too any faults with my work, so I am never ready to stop editing. But now after reading this post, I will say enough is enough and send it to a publishing house. Thanks a lot for this wonderful post.

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  14. After editing my first novel to death (years of editing), I realized it was the story that wasn't working and that I needed to move on. On my current work, I'm doing two rounds of edits before I seek out beta readers and then hopefully one more round of edits before send out queries.

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  15. I edit as I go, scrutinizing each paragraph. Then I reread a chapter again and again to make sure the pacing is good and there's no 'fluff' that could be cut. When the whole thing is done, I reread and edit as I go a couple of times, then I give to readers, beta and family, and see what they think. I make changes if I think they're a good idea (which they often are).

    I'm querying, and it was hard to get inspiration to start something new while stressing over rejection, but I got over that hurdle and started a new one at the beginning of March, and am now 30,000 words in and feeling better. I'll query it when I'm done, and if it fails to pique agent interest, I'll have started something new.

    It seemed ludicrous when I first heard 'keep writing' because I thought I was too stressed to write and query at the same time. I was happily wrong. I might write ten books before I get an agent, and maybe they won't rep any but the one they liked, but that's publishing.

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  16. I love your blog--it seems as though half my blog posts end up referencing back to you in some way. I just blogged about How to Know If You're Querying Too Soon, and linked back to one of your articles. Then I saw this post. It's part and parcel of the same question. (And I loved reading the comments on this post!)

    I'm like you, I can't read anything I write without wondering if it is good enough. But I've been thinking about this all morning, and I think for me it is going to come down to going over my complications worksheet and knowing that I've got everything in the right places, that I feel the right things when I read any given section, and that I am sure I have said what I needed to say.

    It's interesting that you had The Preacher's Bride line-edited. Looking back on it, do you think that was worthwhile?

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  17. It's tempting to just keep editing until someone tell me to stop. But for me, I think it's hindering me from moving on to the next project. Maybe that's because it was my first and Im afraid Im no good at this! But I will move forward - thanks.

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  18. Starting that second and third book is hard. I've done it, but it's hard. However, part of me can't completely let that first book go and I continue to edit as I write new stuff for the new books.

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  19. Great points!
    Sigh. Lynn Austin shared that she quits editing when she reaches deadline, her point being you can never edit enough!

    Sadly, I think that's true!!!
    But there is a time to blow the whistle, drop the flag. Surrender to the best you can get it!

    Hey, if you have time, stop by my place today. I posted late but really want to share a poem by Mary Oliver called, "Lead" in light of the Gulf oil spill.

    On a brighter note, Happy Weekend!

    Blessings,
    Patti

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  20. Adventures in Children's Publishing asked: It's interesting that you had The Preacher's Bride line-edited. Looking back on it, do you think that was worthwhile?

    My Answer: Oh most definitely it was worth it. It was one of the best things I did. I used a freelance editor like some people use a critique partner. I don't have the time to be in a reciprocal critique partnership, so because I knew I needed objective feedback, I paid someone to critique my MS for me.

    My in-house editors gave me rewrites to do, but the overall manuscript was already in great shape because of my self-editing and because of all the changes I'd made at the suggestion of my freelance editor.

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  21. I agree with the last one! There are two kids of exhaustion: the kind when you're happy with what you've accomplished, and the kind when you're feeling like it was a waste of energy. Whenever I feel the latter, I know enough is enough!

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  22. I think timing is an important element in editing. We have to assess where we are as writers on our timeline of development and how much editing will be helpful to us. Writing is not a static achievement. It is a process. We are always in process.

    Anything I wrote in the past is going to be less well-written than something I can write today. That means I will always see more room for improvement in my writing. The best way for me to know when to move on is to get an outside opinion from another editor who understands where I am on my personal timeline. When an editor, whom I trust and respect, says stop, I need to let it go.

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  23. This is great advice!!! It's hard, but writing, editing, and then moving on from some of those first works, can really help us as writers. I wish I could have that make sense to my people that read my very first novel. They don't understand why I'd set it aside.

    The book I'm working on getting ready for submission right now I did do a lot of substantial rewriting on. So I'm torn on your When editing is mostly rewriting point. I see your pont and there's definitely truth to it, but I think we also have to be careful of holding too tightly to that first draft. Balancing the fine line, so to speak.

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  24. Jody, great post!
    I'll just add that right now I'm rewriting my first novel--a book I completed years ago. I basically started with the premise, changed who the characters were, and changed it from 3rd person to 1st person. At first I didn't think it would work but now after several drafts I'm really loving the new story but I had to let go of the old to let that new story in.

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  25. I'm a member of the edit and move-on school. I've heard it takes us 1,000,000 words or 10,000 hours to hone our skill as writers. I've surpassed both. I wrote six books and completed four major rewrites before I felt like my writing was getting closer to a publishable level.

    Last year, I determined which of my stories was the strongest and concentrated on it. I entered that manuscript in contests to see how it would fare and ended up with an offer of representation from my Dream Agent, who was one of my final round judges.

    Am I out on submission awaiting The Call? No. I'm rewriting that story for the third time, but this time I have the expert guidance of my agent. Lately, I've been joking that I'm not a writer. I'm a re-writer. I enjoy pouring forth a rough draft, but editing and revising is what takes my writing to a new level.

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  26. Perfect timing for me!!! I'm at 85K and am trying to put the brakes on my new WIP. I'm going to LOVE editing this book. I plan on kicking it till it speaks to me. I plan on having it sing to me by mid summer so I can start querying this work. Have a great weekend Jodi! I'll see you on twitter.

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  27. Self-editing becomes an addiction if you have a personality like mine. I have been working three years on my first novel, THE BEAR AND THE DARKNESS, and can't seem to let go of it. Why? Because it is the book I always wanted to write, the one for which I have unlimited passion, the story I have always wanted to tell, and it contains certain views and opinions about life that I would like the rest of the world to see.

    I have started other projects in the meantime, and working on them satisfies me for awhile and proceeds much more smoothly, but I keep coming back to THE BEAR.

    Sometimes, when I read it through, it sounds good to me, especially when I compare it to some of the books I have read, but then I read something beautifully written, and suddenly my efforts seem plebeian and inadequate.

    I suppose if a competent editor would tell me I didn't need to edit further, I would stop. That hasn't happened yet -- in fact, no one but me has even read the entire book -- but even if one were to tell me that, there would always be that question, "Is is good enough..."

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  28. Thoughts! I'm thinking I love this post, so full of words I needed to hear and to mull over.

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  29. Great tips! I think there are extremes on both sides. I was once in a critique group with an author who brought the same manuscript to us, month after month. She'd been writing for several years but had only written one book...and she'd spent the rest of those years revising it. Personally, I finish a manuscript, set it aside, move on to something else, THEN come back to it later and revise it. I go through it once, extensively, then send it off to my agent. That's when the real revising begins, I guess, especially once you're published. I've revised a couple of my manuscripts so many times now, I can't stand the sight of them!

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  30. Great post, Jody. As always, I love reading about your experience.

    I especially hold on to the suggestions that first books are practice books and writers should put that book down if it becomes a one and only hope for publication - what a great reminders for me.

    I'm learning so much as I work my way through this first novel experience, but it doesn't need to be my opus.

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  31. I think after a writer has gone through the stages you mentioned, it's time to stop. Sometimes overediting can edit out the voice. Esp. if one listens to too many people. I have a couple manuscripts that I never queried that I knew I needed more time away from. When I come back, I'll do so with more skill and more objectivity. They were definitely not a waste of time.


    Sometimes I can't put all that I've learned into rewriting. It's takes writing fresh for me to see a difference.

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  32. I think your critique group can help with that one. They can see what needs fixing and what doesn't better than you can sometimes.

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  33. Great post. I tend to be on the other end and get excited to move on before I should. This is why I've really been trying to get into a specific routine with editing.

    But I agree on all your points, especially about when you come to a point where you're mostly rewriting. If I go through a book again and again and it's still about altering plot and changing large chunks, I know I need to move away from it for awhile.

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  34. That's definitely a tricky question. I like your thoughts on the matter. I usually don't have too much of a problem myself. I reach a point where I feel good about it and can send it into the world. I think maybe that comes from the large number of short stories that I've written. I never spent forever revising them.

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  35. How I decided I was done: When I was running out of time and money (I'd given myself a set period of time to finish the book).

    And I'm one of those who couldn't let her first book go - I kept hammering at it until I made it work. (It comes out in February.)

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  36. Thanks, Jody. This is a good reminder since I'm really struggling with revisions right now. In my heart, I know that I love writing, but sometimes, it really is difficult to keep pushing through. I will never give up on it, but that doesn't mean I can't hate revisions, right? :)

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  37. Hi Jody -

    Good question. I'm there with, "The Moses Conspiracy." Now, I'm doing the first edit of, "The Scent of Fear."

    I have trouble saying, "it's done." Besides, I know contest feedback and my future publishing company will require more changes.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  38. Great post, Jody! I'm going to link back to it on Monday because of something related that *just* happened this week.

    Paul - I am exactly where you are. Having contracted the second novel I wrote, I now have to go back and re-write my first novel, which will be the second in the series. Major surgery, major re-thinking. :-)

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  39. "Uncle, Uncle!!"

    I'm this close to being finished with revisions and edits for my current book. I'm ready to move on, believe me! But my book isn't ready yet. I have a system and there are two items left to cross off--then it will be done!

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  40. Good food for thought, thank you:)
    Blessings,
    Karen

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  41. Such an excellent point about when it's our first or second book. I hung onto mine for far too long (years), rewriting it into a shabby mess. Last summer I got the courage to let go and get started on the next one. Best decision ever.

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  42. Your posts always speak to me, Jody! My first story was the best I could make it at the time, but I'm embarrassed by it now and, while I've revised it several times, it's shelved and will likely remain shelved. Subsequent ones have been learning experiences, too, but each has more potential than its predecessor.

    I agree with Cassandra's comment about writing not being a static achievement but a process. It's a constant learning process. I expect each novel I write to be better than the previous one and I hope that's something that never changes. Going back to rework or rewrite an earlier novel has merit only if there is a definite plan in place that will improve the writing. I've come to the conclusion that my endless tweaking isn't helpful without a plan. It isn't creative; it's just busywork.

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  43. Your last two points made a big difference to me. I've been worried about what subject matter I should take up for my next book. I've started and I've stopped. I've stressed about the possibility it may not be right etc - all because I was pinning too much on this book. But I can write another..and another and it only improves my writing so really it doesn't matter. So what if it will be my 4th book. I'm willing to write more so meh.

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  44. *GULP* It's always weird to see my name in someone else's posts! But I am glad I was fodder for an excellent breakdown of when to quit editing your baby. I agree with Katie. At some point you will need to collect all these posts and string them together into a book on writing. The wealth of information in your posts is invaluable!

    p.s. Sorry I am just now getting to your post. I had to be away yesterday for a funeral.

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  45. Someone told me once that when you find yourself putting in commas and then taking them back out, it's time to move on.

    I heard a published author yesterday tell a story about doing a reading from a book that had been nominated for the Pulitzer and while he was waiting for his turn to read, noticed things in the page he was going to read he thought where "shit" in his words so he rewrote the paragraph right there and then.

    Ursula LeGuin said she knows it's time to move on when the next story starts to grab her interest.

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  46. its like when you record a piece a music and worry about the drum sample and ADSR etc... (little things a regular listener may not pick up)

    I stop when I worry too much about the little things

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  48. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

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