I’m going to warn you. This is going to get pretty nerdy. I’m almost scared to post this. Please if you’ve never been to this site, read a few other posts before making any judgments. :)
I’m writing this anyway despite my reservations because I think it is something that needs to be said even if my way of saying it is a little nerdy.
On the writing sites I frequent, I hear this advice a lot. Write the story, do an editing pass or two, then submit it, and start writing the next story. Don’t spend too much time revising a story, you learn faster by writing a new stories. I want it to be clear right now, I do think this is good advice for many writers. You can get trapped in endless revisions and editing, and the more stories you write, the better you will get. This definitely can lead to success, as I’m sure it has.
What if you feel strongly about the story? What if you can see its flaws and know how to fix them? What if you really really believe in it, know it has the potential to be publishable, but it isn’t quite there yet?
Should you send it out, give up on it, and move on? Or is it worth putting a little more work into it, rewriting, revising, and editing until you’ve done the best you can, even if it takes months or years?
I think sometimes when you have a story you really believe in, you can’t give up on it. Kathryn Stockett the bestselling author of The Help didn’t even after sixty rejections from agents, and her family and friends urging her to write something else. She believed in the book, and she kept working on it. It took her five years to finish it, but it turned out to be a best seller. J.R.R. Tolkien spent ten years writing The Lord of the Rings, and we all know how successful that story was.
But it is hard to know when you fall into the trap of eternal revision and editing. Like Leonardo da Vince said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
So how do you know when you should abandon your art?
Okay so here is the nerdy part.
I am a science geek and love graphs and stuff. So this is my theoretical graph (there is no data to support this) of editing and/or revising. While there is no data to support my theoretical graph, this is how, from my limited experiences, revisions and editing seems to go for me.
I “plotted” the quality of the manuscript (y-axis) versus the effort put in (x-axis). Please bear with me. I spent way too much time on this graph, but if you simply can’t stomach it, you can go to the asterisk at the end.*
The straight line across the graph labeled perfection is called an asymptote which means, for you non-nerds, that the curved blue line will never reach the perfection line. You can put an infinite amount of effort into a story and it will never reach perfection. You will inch closer and closer to it, but you will never reach it.
Now indulge me a little and look at the curved blue line. In the beginning (which I labeled A) the quality of the work increases greatly with just a little effort. See how steeply the curve rises at the beginning. This is when you are fixing those plot wholes, adding depth to characterization, cutting and rearranging scenes. A little (relative) effort dramatically increases the quality.
At region B, it starts to slow down. A lot more work has to go into it to see a change in quality. Notice how the curve is rounding at B. This is when the storyline is solid, and you are working on the finer editing; doing line by lines, polishing the writing, fixing the grammar sentence by sentence. It is a lot of work, and it does increase the quality, but it takes a lot more effort to do so.
Now you can fiddle endlessly with line edits. If you are staring at the same sentence for twenty minutes, taking out words just to put them back in, dithering on every word choice, you’ve reached region C where the curve is essentially a flat line with little or no change in quality despite tons of effort being done. This is where you can edit forever with very little or no significant change in your story. This is where you need to stop.
But honestly, why would you abandon your story when you are in the A or even B region? Where you can make dramatic increases in quality with little relative effort?
I think it is easy to impatient with writing. If you are like me, you have shiny new ideas piling up while you are writing, and they try to lure you away from your editing. It’s tempting to move on.
But if you really believe in the story, don’t you want to give it the best shot it has of reaching an audience?
The book industry, whether you go the traditional route or self-publish, is very competitive. I just don’t know how I can hope to succeed unless I’m submitting my very best work.
Now I’m not saying you should do this for every story. Some stories need to be abandoned earlier especially if you are not excited about it anymore or it is essentially unfixable. Nor am I saying that my way is the only way.
But sometimes there are stories that burn inside you that you really need to tell, those are the ones that you should not give up on, that you should at least aim for perfection.
Honestly, those are the only ones I want to write.
*If you really can’t stand graphs, my overall point is, at some point in editing, you are spending a lot of time fiddling with the words, but are not significantly changing the overall quality of the story. Once you’ve reached that point, that is when you abandon your story and send it out into the cold, cold world.