Know when to stop editing

We’ve made our way through the whole Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist. Now there are two vastly different errors writers can fall into.

The first is thinking you’re done. If you are working on your first—or even second or third—novel, one or even two passes through your manuscript will not be enough. Let the book lay fallow for a couple of weeks or even a month, while you start writing something new. Then give it another read-through. Look at each category of the checklist and ask whether you’ve really done each element as well as you possibly can. Then make another pass.

The second error is making an infinite number of editing passes, so your manuscript is never finished. The pursuit of perfection is unending. At some point, to borrow an expression from Seth Godin, you just have to decide it’s good enough to ship. Usually that’s the point at which you’re just making things different instead of better.

Of course, “shipping” is different depending on your goals. If you’re seeking traditional publication, shipping means sending your manuscript to agents and editors. If you’re self-publishing, shipping means sending the manuscript to your freelance editor.

Illustration © Helder Sousa • Fotolia
Illustration © Helder Sousa • Fotolia

Regardless of your publishing path, find some beta readers to give your whole manuscript a good read, and be open to their suggestions. Ideally, you want a mix of folks who are just readers and folks who are writers and editors. You want to know how average readers will accept the story, but you also need people who can identify problems with characterization and plot holes, which average readers may not pick up on.

How many editing passes you need before shipping will vary depending on your level of experience and how much help you have, whether from beta readers, critique partners, or freelancers. Bestselling author Mary Burton, in a seminar for the Florida Writers Association, told us she goes through six drafts before submitting to her publisher. That strikes me as a good number for an experienced writer. An inexperienced writer would probably want a few more.

But eventually, you have to stop. Call it done. Call it “good enough to ship.” Then ship.

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1 Comment

  1. […] As I noted when talking about editing a novel, writers often fall into an endless editing trap. You could go over your manuscript an infinite number of times and still find things to improve—or at least change. […]

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