I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. —Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
In writing circles, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a completed manuscript must be in need of revision. Once we complete our first draft and have experienced that sweet moment (or second) of elation—not to mention those gloriously unchecked daydreams of success—there invariably comes the crashing, ice-cold reality, complete with mud and twigs: Now it’s time to start the revision.
The revision isn’t so much the “real work” (writing a book is hardly an easy, speedy process) as it is the less glamorous stage. “Writing a book” sounds so important and accomplished. “Stuck in various stages of revision hell,” on the other hand, is something that nonwriters rarely understand. But it’s the work that needs doing, and in many ways, it doesn’t just polish the manuscript but rather helps the true spirit of the story to emerge.
Revisions are also a somewhat labyrinthine undertaking. We can find ourselves lost in the nuances, the language, and, well, the plot. Some of us have spent years in this complex and dimly lit state, wondering if and when our book will ever be finished. Others never emerge from revisions.
There are, of course, no hard-and-fast rules for when you should stop revising your manuscript.
There are, however, a few tell-tale signs that suggest that maybe it’s time to wrap things up and get on with publishing the book.
1. You still haven’t taken a break from your manuscript
“It’s not you, it’s me,” I told a manuscript many years back. “I just need some time away to think, to live my life, to explore other book options, and to not feel obligated to spend every day with you. It’s just a break. I’m not ending the relationship forever.”
One of the best ways to be able to objectively look at your manuscript is to take a break from it. It’s so easy to become entwined with the creation of your book, but sometimes it’s necessary to get some space so you can differentiate between the book you think you’ve written and what actually has made it onto the page.
“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes,” says bestselling author Neil Gaiman in his “Advice to Authors.” “Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.”
2. You don’t know why you’re revising
When you first start revising, you generally have a rough idea which parts of your book need to be changed, revised, or completely rewritten in order to make it a more cohesive story. Filling in a couple of plot holes, expanding dialogue, and beefing up your structure—these are all normal parts of the process.
But there comes a point in every author’s life when the revisions take on a life of their own. We start second-guessing minute word choices, fixating on words we think we use too often (I have a friend who went through and stripped out the word “was” from her book because she decided there were too many). Eventually, we start making changes for the sake of making changes.
Ensure that your revisions have both purpose and objectivity. If you find you can't do that, it’s usually time to take a break (see above) or to give the manuscript to a few people you trust (like beta readers) to see if maybe you’ve been overthinking the weak spots or have missed something more obvious.
3. You’re going to miss your deadline
Deadlines are sacrosanct. Whether you have a deadline to submit your manuscript to a third party (such as a publisher, editor, or agent), you’re self-publishing with an announced release date, or even if you’ve set a personal deadline, there’s no greater sign that it’s time to stop revising than if you’re going to miss your deadline.
“As long as you’re working on your manuscript consistently and diligently, you should be done by the date you’ve been assigned (or chosen yourself),” writes Angela Ackerman in “3 Signs It’s Time to Stop Editing That Manuscript.” “If you allow yourself to miss one deadline, what’s to stop you from missing more? And at that point, you’ve likely entered into changes-not-improvements territory.”
The greatest gift you can give yourself as a writer is to ensure you’ve built in adequate and reasonable time to revise, and then manage your time accordingly. The consequences if you don’t, says Ackerman, can be substantial. Aside from eroding your reputation with your agents and editors (not to mention the publishers themselves), your lateness also has a significant effect on other people’s ability to do their jobs in a timely manner. And self-published and indie authors aren’t exempt from the consequences either.
“Indie authors might be in the corner giggling to themselves right now, but be forewarned," Ackerman writes. "Your readers expect a steady output of work, perhaps even more than they’d expect from a traditionally published author. If you shirk deadlines, you produce less work. The less work you produce, the less likely your audience is to continue supporting you.”
4. You’ve stopped trusting your writing instincts
It’s true that we’ve all written things we thought were genius that turned out to be, well, not so genius. But we also can be our own worst critics, and because of that, we easily lose sight of objectivity.
While there are writers and authors out in the world who are reasonably certain that they don’t need to revise their manuscript and that the first draft is undoubtedly the best, most find themselves revising to the extent that they no longer feel confident in their writing abilities. Sometimes this spirals into a shame/hate state of self-flagellation and recrimination, but it invariably turns into some version of “everything I do is crap; no one will want to read this book.”
Mostly, this is the biggest sign that you need to take a break from your manuscript.
5. You’ve become too emotionally attached to your book
It’s not surprising that after spending months or years plotting, writing, and revising a book, your relationship with it is intensely personal. Sometimes this emotional attachment can grow out of control (see my earlier comment about “breaking up” with your book). Is this normal? Yes. Is it healthy? Not so much.
“Writers often use birth as a metaphor for the writing process,” points out Missy Wilkinson in “Writing a Book? How to Know When to Stop Editing and Move On.” “They describe their relationships with their manuscripts as a sort of dead-end romance. But a manuscript is not a baby. It is not a lover. While I understand why writers develop emotional attachments to something that occupies so much of their time, minds and hearts, this is not a productive way to use your energy. Give those words a beginning, middle and end, and move on.”
Make sure you give yourself enough emotional space from your work that you can let it go, publish it, and begin work on your next project.
6. You’re waiting for it to be perfect
In my experience, a tendency toward perfectionism exists in most writers. It’s bittersweet—after all, that drive for perfection does in fact propel our writing to much greater heights and creativity. But that need to have something be “perfect” in our books is both painful and pretty much impossible to achieve (unless, of course, you’ve been gifted with an ego that sings your praises, you don’t need to revise, and you are the master of your universe and all that lies within it, etc.).
Perfection doesn’t exist the way we think it does. After all, being flawed is human. And accepting and acknowledging—to say nothing of celebrating—those flaws creates its own kind of perfection.
So many of us have this vision of what our book should look like. And invariably, we never quite seem to get there. It often feels like comparing the Mona Lisa with a child’s crayon scrawl. But perfection isn’t in our perception of the book as compared to our idea of it. Perfection exists in accepting what our work is, making it as polished as we can, and letting it go.
After all, a scrawled crayon drawing is certainly not artistically perfect. But doesn’t it capture a child’s vision of the world with a certain kind of joyful abandon? Do we not for a moment see the world through that child’s eyes in all its messy, unruly simplicity and relate to the child who drew it?
Because, ultimately, that is what makes a good book worth reading.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.