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Step Away from the Computer: When to stop rewriting and move on

If there is one thing authors are told over and over again, it’s that they have to rewrite. It seems that every author ever asked for writing advice talks about the importance of rewriting. Some say it more colorfully than others.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard

“Kill your darlings.” — William Faulkner

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler

Disgusting imagery aside, they are absolutely right. It is a rare author who can get everything right the first time. Most authors require numerous drafts before the storytelling and the writing are both where they need to be. (If you aren’t clear about the differences between the two, see my blog post, “Great Writing versus Great Storytelling: Different Types of Editing for Different Issues.”)

But some authors don’t know when to stop. They go through their book over and over and over and never finish it because there is always something to fix. The problem is, there always will be something to fix, no matter how many times you look at it. And the point is to finish the book so someone can read it, right? So, how do you know when it’s time to move on?

This question comes up at two different times in the writing process. The first is when you have finished writing and revising but haven’t yet shown the book to anyone else. When do you stop writing and get outside help? The second is after you have gotten feedback from beta readers and editors. When do you call it good and send the book out to publishers or publish it yourself?

In the first instance, it’s time to step away and send the book off to an editor when you are no longer sure how to improve it. If you’ve gone through the book a few times and you know it still needs work, but you don’t know how to fix it, an objective set of eyes is what you need. Beta readers can give you overall feedback on how a story comes across and point out inconsistencies that you are too close to see. Editors are trained to help you tighten up your plot, perfect your pacing, and animate your characters, as well as strengthen your writing. When you can’t explain why something isn’t working, they will be able to. And they will offer suggestions about how to fix it. So when you are out of ideas—and just can’t stand the sight of your manuscript anymore—it’s time to let someone else take a look.

So now you’ve sent your book to beta writers and it’s been through a few levels of editing. It’s back in your lap and you can’t decide whether to go through it again or let it go. Try this. Print it out and read it as you would a book. Don’t read it at your computer where it’s easy to make changes. Make a cup of tea, plop yourself in your favorite chair, and read it as if someone else had written it. It will feel more like a book and less like a work in progress this way, and you will be better able to turn off your author’s brain and turn on your reader’s brain. You may be surprised to find that it sounds pretty good! If you still feel the urge to tinker, ask yourself if you are actually making things better or just making things different. Are there specific things you are trying to fix, or are you just futzing around, looking for something to do? If there is nothing in particular that you can point to that needs work, and you’ve received positive feedback from outside sources, it’s time to move on.

If you’re still having difficulty sending your book out into the world, consider that it may have nothing to do with the quality of the work. Are you worried about failure? Or even about success? Are you afraid you don’t have another book in you and want to hang on to this one? Does the thought of starting the whole novel-writing process again sound overwhelming and you want to put it off? There are many things that keep an author from moving on to the next project that have less to do with whether the book is ready and more to do with whether the author is ready.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that your book will never be perfect. It doesn’t have to be. As the saying goes, sometimes done is better than perfect. So do your best, get some help, then get it out there. We can’t wait to read it!

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