When Is Enough Enough?

Past the first draft or so, the process of writing is accretive. You add little bits of characterization or nail down plot points to be consistent throughout. You run through the manuscript, substituting better words and editing out sentences that, at one remove, seem to be trying too hard. The bedeviling aspect of such work is that you can always find new stuff that needs to be fixed.

When do you finally declare a book finished? In considering that question, I will first raise a note of caution. As an editor, I think authors in general should work much harder on their prose in order to reach a high polish. So this post is not about letting yourself off easy.

Having said that, I do believe that revising can reach a point of diminishing returns. You can tell when to stop when the objectives you mean to tackle at the beginning of the revised draft have dwindled down to local issues—i.e., sentence by sentence. For instance, at the start of a second draft you may be still contemplating such significant changes as adding or enlarging the role of a best friend for the protagonist. Or you may decide to change the narrative voice from omniscient to first-person. This sort of change entails a huge amount of work.

The next time through, the issues you’re facing might be more on the level of adding clues or minor plot points to bolster a character. Or you may decide to cut back on a minor character whose usefulness has declined because of the way the story has evolved. At the same time you may be inclined to strike out the last two or three sentences of long paragraphs of interior monologue, realizing they make the pacing drag too much. Still a sizable amount of work, but more of the hammer and tong variety.

Then comes the draft where the scale of such changes narrows even more. You may still decide to expand a scene, but for the most part you are engaged in making sentences more active, shortening sentences in action scenes, substituting for words used too often. You still have plenty to do, as evidenced by all the red ink of editing, but most of it is busy work.

That’s where you start to draw the line. Past a certain point you’re lingering with an old friend, not wanting to deal with the onerous prospect of starting a new project. You can do that for years, literally. But how many books are you not writing because you’re hanging on with good ol’ Mickey and Buddy and Sue?

Exercise: When I’m reviewing a new draft, I use a function in Word (Tools/Track Changes/Compare Documents) to highlight only the changes. If you do this and see that almost all of the changes consist of a new word here and there, with very few full sentences added, you have your proof. You’re done. Move on.

 “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
—Leonardo da Vinci

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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