Knowing When to Stop: How Much Editing is Too Much?

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The idea of writing the first draft of a book – when it’s still in your mind, when you haven’t done it yet – seems like such a large mountain to climb. So when you finally reach the top of that goal, you celebrate. Hard. If it’s your first book, that’s because you don’t realise it’s a false hill, that you aren’t at the top at all. If it’s not your first book, it’s because you know the really tough work is just starting and celebrating each and every achievement is one of the keys to not letting writing drive you insane.

Unless you’re a first draft genius (and nobody is a first draft genius), the amount of time it takes to rewrite and edit your book to publishable standard will be lengthy. For some it will be longer than it took to write the first draft. There’ll be a second draft and a third draft and a fourth draft and on and on it goes.

So how do we know when it’s time to stop editing?

Surely Four Drafts Is Plenty?
Four drafts is plenty. It’s just not a good guide to whether or not your book is finished.

Five Drafts?
No. There are some poor unfortunate souls for whom twenty drafts won’t be enough. Because it’s not about how many times you redraft, it’s about how well you do it and how good your story, your characters, your plot and your writing become with each new version.

When You’ve Acted on the Advice of Your Beta Readers?
This is a reasonable measure but it does depend somewhat on the quality of your beta readers. If any of them are writers themselves, editors, publishers, any kind of professional relevant to writing and reading, then the advice they provide is likely to get you a long way towards having a finished book.

If they’re just everyday people – police, doctors, stay-at-home parents – they’re less likely to pick up the things that professionals would. But they are probably a reasonable cross-section of the general reading public. The problem with the general reading public is that sometimes they enjoy things that aren’t very good. And because these people know you personally, they might be inclined to be kinder than they otherwise would.

Beta readers are important but they’re just one step in the rewriting and editing process and certainly no indication of that process being finished.

When You’ve Acted on the Advice in Your Manuscript Assessment?
Manuscript assessments are great. I credit the manuscript assessment I had done on my first published novel (prior to publishing it, of course) with saving me from having a character shot in the butt (which was a horrible cliché and which I should have been able to see on my own but didn’t until my manuscript assessor pointed it out). The problem is that, even if the manuscript assessment has provided great advice, you won’t know whether the recommendations you’ve now executed equal a publishable book. You manuscript assessor won’t either unless they do another manuscript assessment on the revised version. And you’re unlikely to want to pay for another one.

When You’ve Had It Professionally Copy-Edited?
Having your book professionally copy-edited will mean it is spelled and punctuated correctly and your grammar is as it should be. It will look beautiful to anyone on the lookout for those kinds of things (you know, pedantic types like me). But while publishers will appreciate that the book has great spelling, punctuation and grammar (and that you’ve spent the time and money on getting it that way), they’re more interested in whether it’s a great plot with interesting characters and is well written. Professional copy-editing is the very last thing you should do. Because if the plot, characters and writing need further revision, then you’re likely to introduce new errors into the manuscript when you do it. And you’ll just have to pay to have it professionally copy-edited all over again.

When You’ve Had Enough?
For some this could be a reasonable measure. If you’ve rewritten and edited so much that you just can’t take it anymore, then it’s definitely time to put your book aside and take a break. But that doesn’t mean your book won’t need more rewriting and editing. It just means that you’re not in any frame of mind to be doing it now.

Some books and authors benefit from time apart. So take as much time as you need. When you return, you’ll have renewed enthusiasm and a fresh set of eyes as you undertake yet another review.

When It’s Perfect?
Nope. It will never be perfect. And since it will never be perfect, if you use this as a guide to when you should stop, then you could theoretically edit the same piece of work forever.

So When?
Well, we’ve arrived at the point where you expect an answer. I wish I had a more definitive one. But it’s certainly not a particular number of drafts, a specific length of time or the levels of your frustration that should dictate when to stop editing.

It’s this: if you’re happy with where your book is at, if it flows well, if it’s entertaining, if it’s logical, if it’s original, if it’s easy to read, if it’s a source of pride, if the difference from one draft to the next is just a few words here and there, if no one – not you, not your manuscript assessor, not your beta readers – can come up with anything more than minute changes and if you’re ready to move on to your next project to start the process of writing a different book, then it’s probably time stop editing.

However, it’s entirely up to you. If tinkering away at your novel for the rest of forever is what makes you happy, then you don’t ever have to stop. But if you want to be published, then you have to draw the line somewhere. And there’s no shame in drawing it under a good book. Or even a great book. And who knows? With all the knowledge you’ve acquired from editing this book, the next one might be even better.

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