Monday, June 2, 2014

How do I know when I'm done editing?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

How many rewrites should you do on a manuscript? How many drafts does it take to finish a book?

How do you know when you'refinally!done with edits? You don't, really. It's a gut thing.

Helpful, right?

I wish it were more formulaic, but it really isn't. And when you're new to editing and you don't yet know what your writing process is, it's hard to know when to tell yourself you've done everything you can and that you did your best.

And the really tricky thing about being a flourishing new writer is that with how much and how quickly you're learning, by the time you finish one round of edits, you have so much more knowledge you can apply. As exciting as it is to see rapid improvement, it can also lead to a lot of frustration.

Here are a few suggestions that I hope are helpful:

Study editing processes and try them out.

The only way that editing gets easier and more enjoyable is when you figure out what system works for you. Some writers are at their best when they do drafts and drafts of their manuscript. For some, they write such complete outlines, their first draft has a more complete, polished feel. 

There are times when the only reason I can convince myself I'm done with editing is that I've followed my process and done my normal amount of drafts. For me that process involves a bare bones first draft, a majorly overhauled second draft, a smoothing-stuff-out third draft, and then a polish at the end. At that point I tell myself that I did the best I could do.

Get outside help.

There are very few people with whom I will talk about my book while I'm in the first draft process. As I brainstorm, I might ask for my husband's thoughts on a plot twist I'm considering. Or I might poll a handful of writer friends about a thing or two.

When I'm writing my first draft, however, that's time for me and my manuscript and nobody else. I don't post sentences of it online. I don't call up Jill and read her the scene I just finished and feel proud of. I would argue that receiving too much input when you're in the first draft stage is harmful to you as a writer, but that's just my opinion.

When I do like help is after I've done my major overhaul second draft and smoothing-stuff-out third draft. That's when I feel like I've done everything I can do with the story and that it's time to figure out where my blind spots are. I always have them and sometimes it's a hard rewrite, but this is the timing that I've found works best for me. 

If you don't have writing friends yet, don't panic. I didn't either until I was 22, and I have somehow still managed to make a living as a writer.

Let time be your critique partner.

I won't lieit's wonderful having experienced authors who are willing to read and provide feedback for my stories. Every writer should be lucky enough to have someone who can rip apart their character arc and tell you why it's not working. But before I had professional writer friends, I used a combination of frustration and time to critique for me. It went like this:

"This manuscript is terrible and beyond fixing! I'm done. I'm going to work on something else." Followed by me shutting down the file and moving the folder to my "retired manuscripts" folder.

One month later.

"This new idea could actually fit really well with that manuscript I retired a month ago. I wonder if it really was as bad as I thought it was." Then I would pull out the file, read it, realize yes it was terrible, but that I knew how to fix it now. Hooray!

While this isn't the most pleasant method of getting a book written, it did the trick. Poor Skylar Hoyt got retired so many times, that as I did the final rewrite, I was actually hoping the agent who'd requested it would reject me just so I could work on a new story. (She didn't, and the book became my debut, and I feel very grateful for it all.)

I know "give it time" isn't a very fun suggestion to hear, but sometimes that's really what is needed.

Here are some other editing questions you guys asked:

How long does it take for you to edit your first draft? 

For me? Months. Sometimes that first round of edits can take as long as the first draft did. Especially if I have a book release going on or a lot of life stuff. Like right now my kids are out of school for the summer. I'm lucky if I get to edit a page a day.

Also, if you get rejected by an agent or publisher, do you go back and start editing your draft all over again using the same process, or do you use a shortened process? Or do you just go on to querying other agents/submitting to other publishers without editing it more?

It depends on the feedback they give. I have rewritten a book based on advice I've received. Going back to when I was working on what became my debut novel, the feedback I was consistently getting was that Skylar wasn't a very sympathetic heroine. When I figured out how I wanted to change that, it required a rewrite of the whole book. 

But there have been times when I've ignored an editor's advice because it doesn't fit my book or target market or what I want to happen with the story. In that situation, I've just brushed it off and gone on with submitting elsewhere. (That's not always possible if it's an editor who has already bought the book or if it's YOUR agent, not just "an" agent. But if you're in the querying stage, then you have more flexibility.)

Hopefully this series has helped break down the very intimidating process of editing! In case you missed the earlier posts, here's a list of them:


  1. About a year and a half ago, I wrote a story with three other friends. We titled it On the Run and thought it was the greatest thing ever written. It was AWFUL! There is probably nothing worse than it!!! Anyways, this summer, we are rewriting it...majorly. The characters are completely different along with the plot. I hope this time it turns out a little better!

    1. I love the title! Let us know how rewrites go!

  2. I used to take art lessons from my Papa and his favorite saying was: "Don't gild the lily." There's a point I reach with my book where I have to trust in my work and give it to other people for opinions. It's easy for me to get hung up on 'just one more edit' and have the book sit and rot.

    I've been writing for eight years (started when I was eleven, now I'm nineteen) and I still manage to feel and think like a new writer. I'm working on the edits for a book to send into a publisher which I've never done before and I'm extremely nervous! Every day I learn something new about editing I didn't know before and head back to search my manuscript for previously overlooked errors.

    1. What a great expression of your Papa's! I love that.

  3. These posts were great, Steph! Good job. :-)

  4. I loved this post, Stephanie! Thanks so much. I have a hard time getting to second or third drafts, mostly because I know that the longer I wait, the better I will be able to make the story because I'll have more ideas and more writing experience. But of course that's not true if I never start working on the project.
    I've really loved this series!
    ~Sarah Faulkner


  5. Ugh...what you said about being a young writer and learning all this new stuff quickly and therefore having that interfere with edits hit the nail on the head about one of my problems with editing. I never even thought of that, but it must've been one of those major things getting in the way for me editing my first was hard to get myself to edit when I was always thinking, "But I know I write so much better now..." and "Oh, but now I should go change all this stuff I just learned..."

    I guess there just comes a point where you have to step back and say, "This book is done. I've learned a lot writing it and editing it, but I can't do any more to it now." I had to do that with this book and though I know I can do better now, the thing was, that story was the best it could be (pretty much) so I knew it was done. If that makes any sense. :)

    Thanks for the series! So helpful!

    1. It's good that you're learning how to push through and accept your current best, Amanda. Even published writers go through that. Jill and I sat in a class on story structure a few years ago at a conference and both of us walked out of there bemoaning old manuscripts and having to remind ourselves that we just have to apply it to the next story.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this series of editing posts. I am reaching the end of my novel (Hopefully will finish mid-July) and these will help me a lot during the editing stage! I'm nervous about starting it, but already you have given me some great tips :)
    - Katie

  7. Thanks for these posts! I'm working on the second draft of a book..and because life is so hectic it is taking forever. But I don't feel so guilty now :b