The editing process is perhaps the most laborious aspect of writing if you are a writer. And the most painful. Going back and cutting apart the tapestry you’ve painstakingly woven together requires not only a lot of bravery but an ever greater amount of humility.
How do you know when to stop editing, however? What if your deadline approaches and you have no more time left? If you’re a perfectionist or you have serious self-doubts then knowing when to stop is its own challenge.
Ultimately, it requires you to know yourself as a writer and perpetually rediscover your craft and how you practice it. Writers do not always keep the same identity throughout their careers. Some do, but most go through phases of rediscovery, just like painters and sculptors.
But, if you’re still in that rediscovery phase or have to write as part of your job, even if you don’t particularly care for it, I’ve put together some useful tips.
1. Hire some help.
If you are like most of us introverted writing types, then you may have overdeveloped self-criticism. This can put a serious wrench in your ability to make sound decisions regarding your writing if you spend all of your time writing only to think that nothing you do is good enough. When that is the case, then you need some help.
No, not necessarily therapy, although a spot of that might not go amiss if you find your self-doubts getting in your way more often than not.
But before you decide to trot off to therapy, get some outside writing help in the form of an editor, beta reader, or another professional writer. If you’re a fiction writer, then get a beta reader or several. If you’re putting together materials for your business in the form of training manuals, then getting a professional writer on your side can save you time and possibly prevent a headache.
Or a very bad case of imposter syndrome.
One of the things I do when I write for clients is to ask them questions about their content. More often than not, they have all the answers but have trouble putting them into words. If you’re stuck and you can’t think of how you want to say something, often just getting it out and onto paper so that your writer can whip it into shape is the best way of making sure you meet your deadline and save yourself unnecessary stress.
Best part? Writers for hire are just about everywhere. If you can get one who charges by the project, you don’t even have to worry about tracking hours and when the contract is done, you have a potential resource to help you again, should you need it.
2. Develop your editorial instincts.
Editing is part instinct, part process. For me, at least, it’s partial instinct. I’ve read widely enough to develop a good instinct for flow. There is something to having a wide variety of experiences and reading material under your belt. If anything, it at least gives you an idea of all the many possibilities for how words could sound on the page.
What are some ways to develop your own instincts?
- Vary your reading diet: Count your genres and time periods. Make sure you have a little something from everything.
- Consult different stylebooks on best writing practices. There are a variety of “styles” out there. Some of the most common are the AP Stylebook, MLA Stylebooks, and The Chicago Manual of Style. If you are in the business world, your company may have its own stylebook too.
- Read about writing almost as much as your practice it. Get different perspectives and opinions on the craft, or read biographies of some of the world’s great writers.
- Learn about different types of writing: in addition to fiction writing and journalism, there’s copywriting, technical writing, business writing, and content writing. They all have idiosyncrasies. The more you know about each, the easier it will be to discover your own instincts.
3. Learn to manage your expectations and your self-doubt.
Managing your expectations is not necessarily what you think it is. You may think it’s just “settling.” It’s not. It’s looking at reality and acknowledging things as they are–not how you want them to be. That is a hard, hard lesson for anyone at any stage of life, especially if you’ve suffered more disappointments than you think are “fair” or “equitable” in life.
But if you don’t acknowledge things as they are, then you can’t possibly hope to get better. Know where you are, establish your baseline and then break down how to “level up.” If you can do that, then you can start reaching higher with the knowledge that will actually succeed this time.
If self-doubt is getting in the way, then make sure you build that into your plan. Find things that give you confidence and set aside time to do those things. Like, for instance, working on your writing. Set aside time for your daily freewrites and keep that promise to yourself.
The more honest you are with yourself, the better off you will be in anything. Writing is no different in this regard. In fact, it makes you a better writer once you accept yourself and your writing style for what it is and not what you think it should be.
Shakespeare caught flak from his contemporaries because he wasn’t what they thought he should be. Lucky for us, that didn’t stop him, although I’m sure it fazed him at the time. Most of the really great writers were put down at some point in their careers.
4. Get comfortable with letting go.
There are times when you need to push through. And there are times when you need to decide to let some topics and projects go either temporarily or permanently. Fiction writers and screenwriters may know this better than most because of the amount of editing required before the finished product is ready to go out into the world.
For other types of writing, letting go is just as important. Ideas don’t always work out the way you thought they would, or perhaps you are part of a creative team and the project goes in a different direction that no longer needs a section you’ve spent hours perfecting.
Letting go is hard. It’s especially hard when it’s something you’ve created from a piece of yourself. In a way, it’s like killing off a piece of you. If you’ve read Little Women, then you will identify with Jo March’s burning of her manuscript and the pain she felt.
But whether you are a writer by craft or otherwise, it’s a pain you have to learn to live with. And embrace. And you never know, that section you had to cut out may come in handy later.
How do you know when to do what?
When is it time to let go and when it is time to push through? Well, here are a few tips from my own experience.
It may be time to walk away if
- You barely have anything written and you’ve been trying for days
- You have nothing cohesive to say or have so many different ideas you can’t decide on one.
- You are out of ideas
- You have no time to actually live
You need to push through if
- You have good bones in a piece and just need some refinement
- You have a piece where there is good information and good cohesion
- You have plenty of time before your deadline to really make something of it
- You are writing a paper for a grade or for rent
Ultimately, knowing when to stop editing is a matter of choice and taste for each writer. The more you are familiar with your craft and the way you practice it, the more you will understand when you have given your all, and it’s time to go to press, so to speak.
So, how do you know when you’re ready to submit your work? Let me know in the comments below, or share them with me on Facebook, Instagram, and through email.
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