How to Know You Are Done Editing


I have to submit my manuscript to my editor today. This will be her second review. I have been working on the revisions to this version since December and by the end of the day today I had checked everything off the list of things that I had wanted to address.

I now face the question that has plagued writers forever. Am I finished this revision? In this revision I have:

  • reviewed every page of the damn thing once and most of the last half twice,
  • kept a list of all the things that were bugging me (minor plot credibility problems, a missing chapter, small dropped threads andslightly out of character behaviour) and fixed them,
  • addressed all of my editor’s comments,
  • read the first half of it aloud noting any points where I felt the text got awkward or boring and revised them, and
  • examined some of the important conversations that must hit the mark and adjusted them as necessary.

But does that mean I’m done?

I could go back and review it line by line again. I’m sure I would find something, some sentence to improve, some image to add. But at some point I have to cut it off and the prospect of opening it and going through it again might just send me around the bend (especially since it is sunny at the ski hill). The editor is still doing another review so there will be further changes, minor I hope, but more changes. And this is all before it even gets sent to a potential publisher.

Revising as a potentially infinite task

As Nathan Bransford observed, revising is a potentially “infinite task”. Since there are no obvious signs that I am done, such as burning bushes or crop circles (or any hope for a snowpocalypse in Rossland), I checked the handy Internet for information on how to know when you are finished editing. After all, we have all heard the quote “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (which has been attributed to a wide variety of famous artists over the years). Completely true. But one should have a reasonable sense when to abandon it.

This is what I found:

1)  When you have revised the manuscript completely at least three times

Well, since I think I am actually on full revision number six, with a lot of tinkering at the edges, I can check that off. It feels more like revision number 272. I’ve been working on this novel on and off for six years. I've done the vicious hack job, I’ve changed the tense from past to present throughout, I’ve rewritten the entire middle, I’ve changed three major plot events, and I've cut two POVs. In fact, three revisions seems a bit light compared to what I know most writers have to go through to get their work published. Of course that might be why we’re all a bit batty and spend lots of time in our pajamas.

2)  When you hit your deadline

Today is my deadline, but theoretically I could spend the day editing. Besides I am not sure if a firm deadline is the best strategy. Of course you should work to a deadline, but just because you have reached the deadline does not mean you are finished and have sufficiently improved your manuscript. I am only even considering being done by my deadline because I've checked off everything that I wanted to do.

3)  When you don’t know what else to do/or are not sure if you are making it better or worse

This one is better and it kind of hints at where I feel like I am with this draft. The idea is that if you don’t know what else to do, or you get to a point where you are not sure if you are making it better or worse, it is time to get some feedback. That said, I always know I could start on page one and read the whole damn thing again. I’m sure I wouldfind something to fix, if I don’t start whacking myself in the head with my cat slippers at the prospect (Just to be clear these areslippers with pictures of cats on them, not slippers made out of cats). But you can also over-edit and suck the life from something. How you know precisely when you are doing this though, I don’t know.

4)  When you have let it rest

This is also a decent strategy. It is always good to put the manuscript away for a few weeksand come at it with fresh eyes, especially between revisions. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to do utilize this approach, as I have to submit it today. 

5)  When the editor says it is done

I can go for that. But I still have to decide if it is done enough to submit to the editor. Let’s hope she says it’s done and I can salt the margarita glasses.

6)  When you are pleased

One writer framed this as “whenyou can read it through and no longer feel a compulsive need to change it.” The thing is, I no longer know what pleased means. I was pretty pleased with the first version, which seems utterly laughable now and I'm mortified that I allowed people to read it. I was also pleased with the second and third versions and thought they were done. I was informed otherwise by seasoned professionals. Since then, I have become a much better writer and a much tougher critic of my own work and I am no longer so easily pleased.

7)  When your beta readers say it is done

My beta readers thought it was done a long time ago. In fact, they wonder what the hell I’ve been doing for the past four years in my pajamas and cat slippers. Okay, so maybe they were not the most critical beta readers in theworld. There are more critical beta readers and they are good in early versions to identify things that just are not working. However unless they are very dedicated to you and your work, which can occur in long established critique groups, they will tend to be other writers who arealso focused on their own work. They will also, generally, be seeing bits and pieces of the work as you revise. Beta readers are not likely to have a vision of the overall piece, or if they do, they may all have different visions. At some point you need one vision. Thus while I think they are very useful in flagging problems, I am not sure beta readers can say whether a piece is ‘done’ unless they understand and agree with the vision for the piece and have read it from start to finish in one fell swoop.

8)  When you are on the verge of hating everything in your book because you have read it so many times

Hmmm. Not quite there. Maybe I’m not done. Another version of this advice is when you can’t stand to look at it anymore. I think I might be there. I could force myself to work on it today, but it would not be pretty. There might have to be margaritas involved. 

9)  When your family can’t take it anymore

Unless you areone of those lucky people that doesn’t have to work for money, your writing generally is something you have to fit in around the edges ofyour life – evenings, weekends, pro-d days. This time is generally family time, and you do get to a point, even in the most supportive family, where you have used up all your credits (i.e. when your children are standing behind your chair in their ski boots and have only eatencheerios out of a cup all day). I’m not saying this is the best way to determine whether you are done, but it should factor in there.

10)  When it is sold and in print

I will definitely be salting margarita glasses at this point, and wearing my book launch shoes. I might even spring for new slippers. But of course we all knowthe stories of famous writers who are still editing their published work on the fly while they read it during book launches.

Unfortunately, as usual, it seems there are no easy answers. Eventually you just have to cut the cord and decide it is done, even if you don’t know it is done.

As one commenter on Nathan Bransford’s site pointed out, when you read some of the classic children’s books, such as Little House on the Prairie, Watership Down or any of the Enid Blyton books, they are bytoday’s standards full of things that could be cut or improved, but atsome point those authors said they were done and we are glad that they did.

Maybe I will just reread the last page one more time.

For some good reading on this front, check out:

        Photo Credit: Olivander via Compfight