Editing and Polishing - How Much is Enough?

A few days ago, I critiqued a chapter for a writer I'd been working with for some months. The main thing we'd been working on was 'de-cluttering' her writing. In many sections of her work her natural style came through: it was smooth and easy to read, and I could see the promise there.

In other sections, the pace slowed down dramatically. The action was explained and then explained again in slightly different words. Really, there was no need to 'explain' it at all. Readers bring a vast amount of experience to every book they read. They have seen countless movies and TV shows; they watch the nightly news coverage; they read books, magazines and newspapers. Want proof?

I'm going to write a list of common events. Note the images that come into your mind when you read these words.

  • driving a car

  • having a BBQ

  • eating out in a ritzy restaurant

  • a car accident

  • a terrorist attack
Did I have to 'explain' these events? Did I have to outline how to turn the key and put the car into gear? Did I have to mention the type of clothes worn at a BBQ or a ritzy restaurant? What about a terrorist attack or a car accident?

I'm sure you were able to fill in most of the details from your own viewing or reading or personal experience. All I need to do as a writer is to use the viewpoint character in the scene as a 'filter' for the setting, emotions and immediate impressions. You can supply the rest.

Now let's go back to the writer whose work I was critiquing. Ms. Writer had started to cut a lot of the clutter in her scenes, but I was still finding plenty to work on.

But this time... no. I hardly had to touch it. What had made the difference?

I emailed her with congratulations and asked what she'd been doing. I thought she may have spent more time editing, this time, before sending it off to me. Or perhaps she had put some distance between herself and the writing by putting it aside for a week before polishing?

Her answer surprised me - although it shouldn't have. For a change, she told me, she'd sent this one virtually hot off the computer. After my response, she had come to the conclusion that maybe she'd spent too much time editing in the past - tinkering with it then tinkering some more. Now she was wondering if all she'd done was make it unnecessarily wordy!

An interesting question. Had she simply added clutter? Is it better to just write something, give it a quick read through, and then leave it? When have we done enough editing? When have we fiddled with something too much? Is there any way to know?

That, of course, is the hard part. At what point might we start to spoil a piece of writing instead of make it better?

There isn't a pat answer. If there were, someone would have made a fortune by now selling you the secret. What you have to do is discover your own needs as a writer. You may be one of those who improves a piece of writing immeasurably after editing and polishing. On the other hand, you may write almost-perfect first drafts (lucky you) - and simply make things worse when you tinker. Here are a few tips to help you work out what's best for you.

Get Feedback

It's very hard to know whether your editing is on track without some kind of feedback. You can get this from a critique service, but that can get expensive. The best solution is to join a critique group - or start one up yourself. An online group works well for many writers: you can send email or download the results at a time that suits you.

You don't need a big group. This is counter-productive, because you have to do your share of giving feedback as well as getting it. If you're spending most of your writing time critiquing somebody else's work, you'll start feeling frustrated. One or two critique partners can work very well. Start by joining a writer's discussion list, and after a few weeks you should get a good sense of who might make a good critique partner for you. Send an email and ask if that person is interested. (Try typing 'discussion lists for writers' into your search engine and you'll find plenty of places on the Net where writers meet.)

When you've found a critique partner or two, start exchanging scenes and stories. You can then send the revised version and ask whether you've made it better or worse. After doing this a number of times with several people, you'll have a good sense of what your natural editing/polishing skills are like.

Give Yourself Distance

This is well-worn advice, but worthwhile nonetheless. The very best way to 'see' your own writing clearly is to give it space. The best editing is done after having some time away from the manuscript. You see mistakes so much more clearly when you've let the first draft sit for a week or more. Writers seem to find this incredibly hard to do - they want to write, edit and send it away!

Don't. Give yourself time and space - the more the better. This is particularly important if you don't have a critique partner. The longer you leave it, the better chance you have of looking at your own work through fresh eyes.

When To Stop Tinkering

What if you keep spotting something else that needs work? You'd love to send it away... but it never seems ready!

Welcome to the world of the chronic tinkerer. You are in danger of never getting anything published because nothing will ever be good enough to send away. Face it: we all find something that we should have fixed when it's too late. Like most published authors, I've read through the advance copy of one of my books, winced at a sentence or a phrase or even a whole scene, and thought: I wish I could go back and rewrite that!

If I'd kept thinking that for draft after draft after draft, the book would never have made it to the publisher. Tell yourself that you're going to keep improving as a writer. That means you're always going to see something in your past drafts that needs fixing. But there comes a time when you have to stop - and just send it away.

How do you know when that is? There are a couple of ways.

  • You're sick to death of your whole story. If you have to fix one more thing, you're going to throw up. This is a sure sign you've done enough - for now. Send it away, or

  • Put it away for a while. Be firm with yourself. Resolve not to look at it again for at least four weeks. Then take it out, give it a quick read-through, and mark only the places where something screams out to be fixed. If it jars - work on it. If it reads smoothly enough, leave it alone. Fix it, then send it away.

  • If you trust your critique partner or group, ask them to tell you when they think your story is ready. Remind them not to suggest changes just for the sake of it - you need to know if it's ready for a publisher, that's all.

    A Final Thought

    If you feel you've done pretty well all you can to make sure your story is well-paced, well-told and free of technical errors, then send it away. It's better to have something out there, testing the marketplace, than to spend five years tinkering. While you're waiting for its acceptance, rejection or (if you're lucky) some feedback, you can be working on your next story. And guess what? You'll find that this is a great way to get some perspective on the first one, because you're not obsessing over it night and day. If it does come back, either send it out to a different publisher or put it aside until you've finished your work in progress. Then look at it again. You're sure to view it much more objectively. This is the time to decide whether it needs more work - or whether it should be treated just as a good learning experience.

    (c) Copyright Marg McAlister

    Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/

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