My series for Writers & Artists is at an end, save the last Q&A post that's being put together behind the scenes. It's been brilliant, to be honest - especially the comments and conversation with other readers and writers. The post on editing got a lot of attention, predictably (I think it's an area people are wary of without even starting out first) - but it also raised a question I hadn't addressed.
When do you stop editing?
A first draft is rough (Hemingway said it was 'shit', I hear). You tinker / chisel / polish / apply whatever metaphor you wish, and it gets better. Finally, complete story, and instant fame and riches are yours. Congrats!*
*there will be no instant fame or riches.
So the question is, when is a story done? And I mean done done, so that it's ready to be read. Writers always want to play more. I guess in that way we can be like the deranged puppy with the toy that no, doesn't want to let go and yes, would much rather keep playing and keeping you awake for ever and ever, hooray.
To fall back on another of my betters, Neil Gaiman has said before that books aren't so much done as let go and put out in public, but he can always edit / improve them more. If art is ongoing and evolves with interaction, books could be forever re-released with changes. Actually, with ebooks, this is entirely feasible, though it raises more legal and ethical issues because of, you know, publishers being able to delete and edit any item people have bought without their permission (yes, they could. No, they won't.)
So, editing. As I write I tend not to edit either small or big things. Even typos get left behind if the story's chugging along. That all comes later, the correcting and the fixing.
But this is about stopping - about knowing when changes you make are going to start hurting the book.
Let's have some bullet points. Everyone loves a good bullet point.
Stop Editing Your Book When...
- You start adding in new twists and plot arcs on the spur of the moment. The repercussions down the line mean you're basically starting back at square one.
- You spend more than about thirty seconds agonizing over a single semi-colon. Punctuation has concrete rules. It's not hard. If you're indecisive it's because you're over thinking. Stop.
- Read your dialogue out loud. Is it natural, or have you edited it so much that it's either brisk and abrupt or long winded? Stop, and let characters breathe as well as speak.
- And, as with the above, have you got so caught up worrying about sense that you've forced in too much info as a precaution? Readers aren't stupid and they can probably work a lot more out than you realise - and all without you adding more and more hints and clues 'for clarity'. Reign it in, professor.
- You rewrite the same sentence over, and over, and over. Is it broken? Cut it. What you leave out is just as important as what you leave in. Stop beating the dead horse and thinking editing can fix a fatally bad bit of writing.
It can be a fine line, for sure, but tinkering rather than improving can strip a story of all the individuality and artistry that makes up your voice. Maybe that's another good point - if you're editing out the parts that make it yours, either because you're trying to be someone else or because you're scared it won't 'fit the market', stop. Be bold and be yourself even if that means damning grammar rules.
Good. What do you think? When does editing become a hindrance to good writing?