When to Stop Revising

An editorial client of mine wrote me this morning about when to stop revising, just as I was wondering what I’d post on the blog. Her question, to paraphrase, was:

I see that my manuscript has a few flaws, some big, some small. But are they fatal flaws? Is it better to revise this manuscript or give up on it so that I can focus on something else that doesn’t feel quite so full of holes.

In other words:

Does this have a chance of getting published or should I place my bets elsewhere?

when to stop revising, drawer manuscript
Not sure if a manuscript is worth revising for the millionth time? Put it in a drawer for three months. Looking at it with fresh eyes can help you to evaluate it accurately.

The Question

If this isn’t THE QUESTION, I don’t know what is! And, as you can guess, I love and I hate this question. I hate it because it’s, for the most part, impossible to predict which projects will sell to a publisher and which won’t. Which will, once they sell, go on to achieve commercial success, and which won’t. Even publishers don’t have the secret formula: most of the books that they pay advances on don’t earn out. Yet this is the question on every writer’s mind, and understandably so. Unfortunately, I can’t answer it with any degree of certainty because I don’t have a crystal ball. (If I did, you’d see my IP address coming from some island. Cuz I’d use it to play the financial markets and not hedge my bets on publishing, ha!)

But this noncommittal nonsense is NOT why you’re reading this post about when to stop revising. So, while I have to say it, I won’t give you some fake half-answer and call it a day. I know what you’re really asking, and despite my caveat, I will tell you what I told my client, just in less specific terms because I likely haven’t seen your manuscript. If there are weaknesses to your manuscript that you or someone else has identified, or if it’s in a very crowded category (zombies, for example) and you just don’t know if you can make a dent, I would really dig in to the area that needs work. If it’s craft, read as many plotting/character/voice/whatever books as you can get your hands on. If it’s premise, start thinking of ways to make it stand out. (Check out this post about freshening up your book premise.)

Think Critically About Your Work Before You Decide When to Stop Revising

While you’re at it, you will want to really take a long, hard look at everything that’s going on in the book. In fiction, one element informs the other, and so it’s pretty hard to untangle them and say, “This is the culprit, revise this and everything else will seem different, too.” Take all feedback you receive with a grain of salt, and make sure you do your own digging, too. Hint: If you have a hunch that something isn’t working, I can basically guarantee that you’re right. The majority of things I comment on in manuscripts are things the writer knows are an issue but has been avoiding fixing because the fix seems complicated, or they just don’t know how. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “Yeah, I thought so!” in response to an editorial note.

You know that I hate this question, but I said that I also love it. I love it because writers are asking when to stop revising. That means they have the presence of mind to think critically about their own work. A lot of people don’t, believe it or not. Not any of you fine people who are reading craft articles in the pursuit of knowledge, that’s for sure. With you in mind, however, I will say this: It’s possible to be too critical and nip a good project in the bud before you give it adequate time to flower. We all want the certainty of, “If I spend six months on this manuscript, I will reap the rewards with a juicy book deal!” But it doesn’t work that way. If you’re an unproven talent, you have to do the work and put in the time long before anyone has heard of you or validated your efforts. So don’t get frustrated and quit too early, because any work you do on your WIP is good work. Is necessary work in learning how to create a story.

Revision Always Helps You Learn

You don’t get any guarantees but revision is never a complete waste of time, either. Unless you know, without a doubt, that the manuscript is terrible and even your Mom has told you so, there is something to be learned from every revision effort. You can certainly speed up the process by getting qualified feedback (not everyone who has something to say about writing knows what they’re talking about, so only seek out the opinion of people you trust). And you can speed up your ability to do something with the feedback by reading about the craft.

There’s no way to say right now whether your revision will result in a manuscript that goes on to be published or forevermore remains a drawer manuscript. I am NOT trying to dodge this all-important question about when to stop revising when I say that. Either way, though, it will be worth it because I can say, categorically, that every writer has at least a few things to learn. Whether they’re for your current WIP or for your next idea or whatever’s after that, you will learn something and you will be able to use it to your advantage going forward. There’s an obstacle course in front of you, and I’d at least run it, even if you don’t get the outcome you want.

The “Drawer Manuscript” Technique

If this answer doesn’t seem right for you because you suspect your manuscript is flawed as all get-out, I recommend the following: try the “drawer manuscript” technique. In other words, put it aside for three months (this is key, I promise, nobody will do it but it’s good advice), and work on whatever new idea is getting you excited. Give it one last read, and then evaluate when to stop revising. Sometimes revision fatigue can blind us. You may find something there that’s worth working on. Or you may confirm your suspicion that you’ve written a drawer manuscript that should stay in the drawer. Either way, you’ve given it one last look.

If you can’t look at your manuscript one more time, hire my editorial services and I’ll give you a fresh perspective on your work.

2 Replies to “When to Stop Revising”

  1. I’ve had to give up on more manuscripts than I’ve completed. For one novel, I’d nearly completed the first draft when I realized that making it work would require a total rewrite, and that even when fixed the story wouldn’t have been very compelling. For many others, I realized while outlining that I had a fun concept but nowhere to go with it.

    But the manuscripts I have completed didn’t work at first, either. While working on my last book I wrote all of my chapter descriptions on a whiteboard in pretty colors, stood back feeling pleased with myself, and then said, “Fudge, this novel has no plot.” I gave it one and received several requests for fulls from agents…though all of them ultimately said, “I love it, but I can’t sell it.” Sadly a good story is only a prerequisite for publication, not a guarantee.

    The book I’m working on now I started last year. I typed about 20,000 words before giving up because the writing was terrible. Then this summer I found the outline on my computer, and I thought, “This story has great potential! It deserves to be written!” The 20,000 words really were terrible, so I threw those out and started fresh. Now I’m a third of the way in, and I’m confident the finished product will be good. Whether it will sell is another matter, and one I refuse to think about right now!

    I wouldn’t give up on a story you love thinking you should work on something that isn’t full of holes, because every story starts out full of holes–unless you’re retelling a story that already exists. Stories are like cheesecakes. Hot out of the oven, it’s hard to tell how well they’re going to set, and the only way to know for sure is to be patient and give them time.

  2. I write about time management for writers at my blog. The issue you are covering today relates to a question I’ve had in relation to managing time–Is there a time frame/window/deadline for deciding whether a project is going to work or should be, at least, put aside for a while? Freelance writers who are seriously trying to make a living and seek out jobs and submit regularly–they can’t work indefinitely on a project that’s not coming together for them. They have to get work out in order to generate income.

    I’ve often thought that it might be helpful for any kind of writer to follow some kind of schedule–After X amount of time, if you haven’t made X kind of progress, feel X amount of satisfaction with a job, put it aside and move on. For at least a while. Say, three months, as you suggested.

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