• When Should I Stop Rewriting?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 15 comments

    Stop RewritingRecently we gave some tips on how to conquer your fear of writing. (Answer: By writing!) But writing itself is only half the battle–maybe even less than half. Likely you’ve heard the axiom “Writing is rewriting.” What this means is that the rewriting and revision stage is where most of the real work is done. But sometimes that work can drag on … and on, and on, and on. A question we hear often at WBN is, “When should I stop rewriting and move on?

    WriteByNighter Tammy G. is up against this problem:

    My first draft is 66,376 words in need of serious editing for perspective, pace and show don’t tell,” Tammy tells us. “I have rewritten chapter one four times. I believe I figured out how chapter one should look now, but I am procrastinating. The rewrite I have to do is like throwing the first three chapters in the air and watching the pages land everywhere. Undoing the work is scary even though I know it makes the story better. Is this normal?

    The short answer: Yes!

    The longer answer: Yes, because …

    Let’s start with “I have rewritten chapter one four times … I am procrastinating.”

    One of the most difficult actions for a writer is to let go. You’ve rewritten Chapter One four times now. Is there a word on page 6 that could be swapped for a better word? Probably. Can you write a sharper dialogue tag for that line on page 8? Sure. Can you reach a point where every single word in your book is perfect and there is absolutely zero room for improvement? Absolutely not, never ever ever.

    Here are a few (leading) questions to ask yourself:

    1) Can I honestly say that Chapter One still legitimately needs work, and that it merits the time required to devote to it, to the neglect of the rest of the book?

    2) Or is my time better spent moving forward and focusing on Chapter Two, then Chapter Three?

    3) Am I perhaps just having a problem letting go and moving on because I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of revising the entire rest of the book?

    It sounds like you’re at a crossroads. Continue to drag your feet and you risk coming to a complete halt. Move ahead before you’re ready and you risk leaving gaping holes behind you.

    Take A Break, Watch a Movie

    You’re in the primal scream phase. You know what might help? Literally “throwing the first three chapters in the air and watching the pages land everywhere.” It worked for Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, whose editor, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr., lets loose the thousands of pages (no copies!) of Tripp’s novel to settle in the Monongahela.

    Wonder Boys PosterThen watch the rest of the movie, which we’ve discussed before as being better than the book.

    Swoop and Bash, Swoop and Bash

    I’m guessing that you’re what Kurt Vonnegut calls a “swooper” in his final novel, Timequake. To wit:

    “Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter any more, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

    I’m a swooper when I write fiction; I’ll sit down and bang out a short story in one sitting. The result of this, of course, is a sloppy, disjointed draft, where often I have to totally overhaul the beginning to match the end.

    But! In the words of the great E.B. White, “The best writing is rewriting.” If bookstores were filled with bound first drafts, they’d be desolate places.

    Getting the Real Work Done

    So, you’re in the rewriting/revision process. You need some “serious editing for perspective, pace and show don’t tell.” You feel like you’ve been working on this book for decades, you feel like you know every goddamn word by heart, you feel like you’re regressing instead of progressing. It’s a frustrating place to be.

    But it’s where the real work gets done.

    You’ve revised Chapter One. Now revise Chapter Two. And when you’re done with that? Revise Chapter Three.

    Sure, “undoing the work is scary”; if you weren’t frustrated and daunted by the task in front of you, I would be wondering what kind of drug you’re on, and may I have some, please.

    How about it, WriteByNighters: how do you answer the question “When Should I Stop Rewriting?” Share with us your tips and tricks for knowing how and when to move on.


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    Tammy Gibaud

    Thank you for answering my question with such helpful detail.
    Chapter one, two and three are looking pretty good now. Chapter four is in front of me now with all of its challenges. Two thousand plus words were moved to the file for book two where they will fit nicely, that is until I start to edit them there.

    Richard Salassi

    I’m hardly qualified to answer questions I, too, need answering at the moment. I’ve written and re-written ONION CREEK umpteen times and it still needs more attention.

    Jivan Parnell

    I think there comes a point where we need to “let go” of the demon inner critic and say to ourselves “yep, that’s okay,” and move on. When we reach the end of the process, let it rest for a while. Don’t touch it, don’t read it. Start something different, or simply take a writing break for a little while (I’m talking weeks here, not hours). When you’re ready, pick it up again and read it. You may be surprised to find that you might actually like it, or if some things really stand out, then change them and repeat… Read more »

    Casey Claunch

    I’ve completed one novel so I’ve only had this experience once, but I find that the rewriting is done when I can’t stand to look, think, dream or smell the manuscript anymore. It’s the same experience I had in college. My essays/papers were always done when I was sick and tired of them. Of course, once you’re completely disgusted with your book, it also helps to step back for a few weeks to a month and then come back to it. If you come back after a month and you’re still disgusted, it’s probably good to go. Confirm with your… Read more »

    Jeffrey Taylor

    When I start changing words back to the earlier edits with little “original” changes, it’s time to send it on it’s way.

    Steven Pressfield recommends serial editing. An edit for just continuity. A spelling check. A grammar check. An edit for better word choice. Focus on one aspect at a time.

    He writes novels and screenplays. I’ve just written shorter pieces. Different processes for different forms.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I’m the same, Jeff. When I’m driving myself crazy over comma placement, I know I’m done.

    I’ve heard of serial editing, and imagine it’s useful although definitely not efficient. I don’t recommend that tactic if you’re on deadline!

    […] we’ve chatted in this space about methods to help you start writing and methods to help you stop writing. Oh, but what about that meaty middle? A successful piece of writing, both fiction and non, […]

    Charity Kountz

    Here’s what I have learned as a self-published author – revisions can continue over time, even after publication. A major traditional publisher might only update with major changes but as a self-publisher I can do that as often as necessary. That of course doesn’t mean not to edit properly but it takes a little of the pressure off when you realize publishing doesn’t mean no more revisions ever again.

    […] When Should I Stop Rewriting? […]


    Good article. I rewrote my story 11 times, 7 times and 5 times (the beginning 11 times, the middle 7 times and ending over 5). I’m getting an assessment on this version so look forward to the result. What I learnt is that the story is flawed foundationally and so it’s time to move on. If it gets published it was worth it. If it doesn’t, I have wasted (not wasted, but spent productive hours unwisely) 3 years. I shall return one day with an answer. Till then, move on with your stories folk or forever regret being bogged down… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hi Sean. Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your experiences. It’s *so hard* to know when to quit, isn’t it? To identify the point at which further tinkering goes from helpful to harmful.

    Even when I publish something I can’t reread it without wishing I could take it back and make more changes. It just never ends!

    But hey, writing has its good moments too, right? (Right?)

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x