If you’re anything like me, knowing when to step away from your work is not always the easiest task. Or even close to the realm of easy tasks. I usually like to have one or two trustworthy friends look at my work before I send it out, and before that I’ve been known to mull over the same lines, wracking my brain for better syntax until my eyes bleed.
Well, not really, of course. But I’m sure many of you know the feeling.
As writers, we want to present our best work, especially when looking for representation or a publishing deal. That involves a healthy amount of self-editing, sure. A good proofread is key. Maybe a second glance over to change out some overused words, or find a more flowery phrase. And they say third time’s a charm, right? Better to give it another glance. And the more the merrier…so how about a fourth glance? A fifth, to be safe. And before you know it, you have fallen into an editing vortex from which your writing will be lucky to escape alive.
“But Tallie, editing feels so good!” I know. I really do. But I also believe that your first ideas are often the freshest, most valuable, most truthful parts of the writing process. Yes, they need to be cleaned up and expanded upon, but for the love of goodness they do not need to be nitpicked into unrecognizable mush.
So what’s the secret? I’m still trying to figure that out myself- but in the meantime, I’ve created some commandments for myself.
1. Thou shalt not spend more than 30 minutes at a time on one paragraph.
The timing might be slightly different for each writer, but I find that my mind is sharpest and my ideas freshest within the first 30 minutes of looking at something. After that, I start to feel sloppy and subpar. This doesn’t mean you ONLY have 30 minutes to edit; take a break, make a snack, watch a funny YouTube video to cleanse your brain. Then go on to the next section, and come back in a few hours or the next day when this piece is fully out of your self-critical wrath.
2. Thou shalt not edit a section more than three times.
Before your work is sent to a professional, I command you not to edit it yourself over three times. Depending on how thorough you are, the third time might even be pushing it, so try to work on creating a gauge for yourself. If you start to feel like you can’t recognize your own writing, you’ve probably gone too far.
3. Thou shalt not beat thyself up!
So you can’t find the exact synonym or metaphor that your sentence needs. Repeat after me: It is okay. The writing is good, and it will come to me. Instead of slamming your head against the keyboard in defeat (a thing that I’m sure everybody does), take a step back and know that even if you’re settling for a less than perfect phrase right now, it doesn’t mean you’re closing yourself off to inspiration. This brings me to commandment number 4:
4. Thou shalt put it out of mind.
It sounds counterintuitive, but when you’re stuck on a sentence or paragraph, forget about it! Do something totally the opposite of staring at your work and let the sticky syntax leave your mind for a while. Chances are, the next time you look at it, the words will feel new and vibrant again and the right phrasing will come to you naturally. This break can be a few hours or days long- I try not to go longer than a week, because you don’t want to entirely forget what you want to say, but again, everyone is different.
The hardest step is deciding that a project is done. Well, ready. Nothing will ever feel “done;” there will always be a stronger way to word something that you think of way too late. This step, however, is totally necessary to publishing or sending out any work. My system, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily the best, is simply to decide (after no more than three rounds of editing) that my time is up, and I have to press send. Is the work the best it will ever be? Probably not. But that’s what literary agents and editors are for. Take some deep breaths, find your zen happy place, and send your child out into the world, knowing that there are people who are now better equipped to take care of it.
It’s hard to follow any of these guidelines at first, and especially hard to work on finding your own internal rhythm for what works. Definitely try, though! Your sanity, your work, and your readers will thank you.
Your prompt this week is: “1987.”
BookHive does beta reader editorial research for authors with Fiction (all kinds), YA/Middle Grade & Memoir manuscripts.
Tallie Gabriel is an actor, writer, and BookHive social media maven. She’s a member of InViolet Theatre and works with BEDLAM Theatre in NYC.