Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How much editing is too much?

A reader e-mailed to ask: I have been writing this one story for a very long time. I wrote it out once and then tweaked it to death, so I started again, and now it’s under tweaked and depresses me to read, but I don't want to risk killing it again. How do I find a middle ground that makes it just right?

Excellent question.

I can tell you what’s worked for me, and others should feel free to chime in about experiences they may have had with the over-editing, under-editing issue.

First I’ll say that sometimes I have story ideas that are beyond my current skill set. I had one about 6 years ago that I was dying to write, that I attempted a couple times, but I just never seemed to be able to communicate what I wanted in the way I wanted. I finally decided that I just didn’t know how to write the story yet. I put it away, and I’m just now reaching the point where I feel like I could try tackling it again. So if the issue is that you just can’t seem to get the words on the page the way you want to, it might just be that you need a little more time to study the craft, read other works that are similar, etc.

But of course that’s not always the case. Sometimes writing the story is hard because, well, writing is hard sometimes. My piece of advice is this—if it depresses you to read it, then don’t. Just write. Don’t reread stuff you’ve done, don’t edit the previous day’s work, just write and write and write until you type THE END. Then put the manuscript away for a couple weeks before you start editing.

When you have that breather from the manuscript, it’s so much easier to have a good, clear head about what you’ve written. Often times, after the breather, I’ll look at a scene I really struggled with and be able to immediately pinpoint why it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Whereas if I push myself to make it perfect the first time, I spend TONS of time and it still comes out wrong. So I’d say just don’t edit as you go along, save it for the end.

It really sounds like you’re just a little too close to the project right now. If you have a writing friend, I’d ask them to read it and offer insights. If you don’t—which I didn’t until around I was 22 and went to my first writing conference—then take a few weeks off from it. Read an excellent craft book, like On Writing by Stephen King or Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and give yourself some space.

Got a question? E-mail me.


  1. Three cheers for writing friends! When I get to the "to edit or not to edit more?" phase, that's when I send it to Stephanie and say, "HELP!" =)

    Even if you don't have a writer-friend, a reader-friend can be equally helpful. They may not know about the craft, but they know what they like and don't like and can often help figure out the why of thing.

  2. Excellent point. Initially, I had a few trusted friends who read my manuscripts. None of them were writers, but they were all readers and, like Roseanna said, they really help clarified what worked and what didn't.

    One more thing on that - your test readers need to be people you can trust. And make it clear what kind of feedback you expect. I've been seriously hurt by not specifying my expectations, and also by letting people read early drafts who had no business reading early drafts because they didn't have the best of intentions. Learn from my mistakes!