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Wednesday, October 14

When Should You Stop Revising?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy


I revised my first novel for nineteen years. I'd gut it, rewrite it, cut it some more, edit profusely, write some more, change the plot, add characters, cut characters, combine characters.

You get the idea.

I was convinced I could improve it every time I revised it. But you know what? It didn't help. I was only making a mess.

I've come a long way since then, but that urge to keep revising has never fully gone away. I still want to revise The Shifter, and it's been on the shelf since 2009. But there comes a point when you have to let a book go.

(More on a revision pre-flight checklist)

How do you know when a novel is done? When do you stop revising?


Quick and easy answer is when you've stopped making significant changes, and all you're doing is tweaking a word here and a comma there.

What qualifies as minor changes varies. One or two tweaks per page suggests one last proof-reading pass won't hurt. One or two tweaks per chapter suggests it's probably good to go. One caveat here: If the tweaks are errors, keep proofing until you get them all. I'm talking about word changes and minor rewriting. Style, not substance.

(More on when revisions go astray)

What if you still feel that something is wrong?


Make a judgment call, which can be hard because it's so subjective. Being tired of the manuscript can easily make you feel that it's "done," when it really isn't. Several factors can affect that "it's not right" feeling in your gut. Ask yourself:

What about the work feels wrong?

If you can pinpoint specific problems, then odds are you're not finished, even if the text is polished to perfection. The issue is likely a macro problem that has nothing to do with the quality of the prose, but structural or story issues. Such as, the pacing is slow in chapter nine, or, the goal isn't very clear in chapter six, maybe the front half is too long or the stakes are too low overall.

If you're just scared it's not good enough, you're probably done revising. That's a normal fear, and self-doubt about a new project happens to pretty much everyone.

(More on mentally preparing for revisions) 

Does it feel boring because it is boring, or just because you've been looking at it forever?

There comes a time in every book I write where I'm sick of it. Usually right before I send it off to my agent. If you're tired of looking at your novel, could be an indication that you've done all you could and it's ready to go.

On the flip side, if the story is boring you, that could also indicate the story is, well, boring. Be objective and determine if this feeling is due to those countless re-reads, or if that scene has always felt blah. Be especially wary of scenes you tend to skip over during revisions because you feel they're good enough and don't want to deal with them anymore. If you're skimming just to get through it, you might want to reconsider if that scene is working.

(More on trusting your writer's instincts)

Has that scene ever bothered you before?

Some scenes I always knew in my gut weren't right, but I ignored the warning signs. Often it was because I liked the scene, and wanted to keep it, even though I knew deep down it had to go. Listen to those nagging suspicions that you "ought to do something." Ignore that whisper that says "no one will notice" or "I can get away with it." That's a red flag you should fix it.

(More on salvaging half-finished manuscripts)

Uncertainty about a manuscript's readiness is normal, so don't fret if you have doubts. But also know you can cross the line between improving your manuscript and just editing the life out of it. Stop before you change things just to make it sound new.

When do you know you're done revising? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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