Are You Over-Editing Your Work?

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Red pen on paperImage from Flickr by pheaber

Last week’s post on The Four Essential Stages of Writing got some great comments, including this one from Ainslie:

I must admit that I am beginning to enjoy the redrafting and editing phase of my work a whole lot more since working with you as my Writing Coach, I now spend time looking at specific words and phrases and really making sure if they fit with the message I am conveying.

I am really enjoying the process but worry that the constant redrafting may be holding me back as well.

This brings up a great question: how much redrafting and editing is too much?


It’s a tricky balance, and it depends on what you’re writing and what you’re aiming for:

  • Non-fiction doesn’t require so much work as fiction.
  • A piece for your own blog – fairly ephemeral, provided to readers for free – doesn’t require so much redrafting and editing as an ebook which you want to sell.
  • A book that’s going to be printed, rather than published in digital form, is going to be tricky to correct – so you’ll want to get it as right as you can, the first time round.
  • A piece of work which is going to be assessed in some way – for a postgraduate degree, or by agents and publishers – needs thoughtful redrafting and careful editing.

At the moment, I’m working on the fourth draft of my novel. When I read through the whole of draft three, I realised that there were still some areas which need work.

Am I being a perfectionist?

No, I don’t think so. When I send this book to agents, I want it to be as good as I can make it. If I’m honest with myself, it’s not quite there yet.

If extensive redrafting is need, it’s usually pretty obvious. There’ll be confused or repetitive sections in your ebook, or chapters where your novel sags. Your blog post will be missing an introduction or conclusion.

Sure, you can get bogged down in shifting chapters around – trying them one way, then going back to how they originally were – but, generally, you’ll find it easy to move on from redrafting.

It’s editing where writers get stuck. We want every word and phrase and sentence to be just right – and that’s not a bad thing to want.

Editing starts to harm your writing, though, when:

  • You spend all your time tweaking words, rather than writing something new.
  • You start changing things which originally seemed fine, because you’re beginning to doubt them.
  • You edit out the voice and energy of your work – it’s possible to over polish.
  • You know that there’s something wrong, but you can’t work out how to fix it – and you’re stuck for ages on one paragraph.

At some point, you need to let go. During the editing stage, you might want to ask a fellow writer to look through your work – a second pair of eyes can spot mistakes that you miss, and a second opinion might reassure you that your piece is finished.

It also helps to have a deadline in mind: decide on the launch date for your ebook, or fix a date to start emailing agents, or commit to a regular schedule with your blog posts. That way, you’ll be focused on finishing, not on perfection.

Good luck!

I’m now offering writing coaching by email as well as by phone. If you need a hand with your editing but hate talking on the phone, or can’t find a whole free hour, then check out the email coaching on my coaching page (scroll down to just under the red pen).

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

18 thoughts on “Are You Over-Editing Your Work?

  1. I like what you said near the end “focus on finishing, not perfection”. That is key to a procrastinator like me.

    I personally am afraid of taking something out that I might regret. I actually create a word doc for anything I cut but don’t want to completely get rid of and call it “the cutting room”, sort of like the extra scenes on a DVD. The funny thing is the cut portions never get put back in.

    You could edit something to death…cutting, hacking, tweeking, fine-tuning…and this could go on forever, but at some point you have to trust yourself and say, “I’ll stop now, and run with what I have, this is the best piece I can write”

    Great post, Thanks!

    • Cheers Zac! Feel free to write that bit out in big letters and put it on your wall, or something…

      I think that keeping hold of the cut bits is a great idea. If I’m redrafting heavily, I save different versions – so that I can always revert back if necessary!

  2. Ali, for my freelance writing for textbook publishers I usually write the first draft and then do a single edit, but I do edit my first draft as I go along.

    For my own books and e-books, I typically edit 4 times:

    1. Shortly after the first draft.
    2. At least a week after the first edit.
    3. At least a week after the second edit, and then I give the manuscript to one or more writer friends to read over.
    4. One final edit, which includes incorporating changes and suggestions from my writer friends.

    Finally, I agree that the most important thing is get the work out into the world, even if it’s not perfect.

    • I think that’s a great schedule. I tend to edit a bit as I go along — with my novel, I wanted to show parts of the work-in-progress from a very early stage, so I needed to do some editing to try to make it a decent reading experience for my workshop group…

  3. Hi Ali,

    An old writing adage I go by is: 90% of all writing is re-writing. I tend to agree with this.

    When I write a post, I let it flow first (about one hour) and then back and re-write/edit (about 5 hours). Maybe too much for a blog post, but it’s important to me!

    Alex

    • For me, it’s probably more of a 50/50 balance between writing and rewriting, though it does depend on the material. Most blog posts, I write in 45-60 minutes, then probably only spend 10-15 minutes editing (though it does vary, depending on what I’m writing about).

  4. I enjoyed reading this Ali, as I do all your articles.

    I’m pretty bad when it comes to editing. Although I do want proper grammar and typos really bug me, I don’t edit very much. Most posts for me, which are in the 600-1000 word range, take 30-50 minutes to write. I’ll then edit and add a photo and a few links and 30 minutes later, I’m wanting to push publish. Obviously, if this was a book, I’d treat it differently.

    I think the key for people to understand is that we’re all different, and we must be careful not to overly compare ourselves to others and their systems.

    As always, thanks for your excellent thoughts Ali.

    Marcus

    • Thanks Marcus! Glad you’re enjoying the pieces – and do let me know if there’s ever a specific topic that you’d like to see me tackle.

      Like you, I don’t edit blog posts all that much, and I spend roughly the same amount of time on the writing as you do (see my comment to Alex above). I often edit the introduction quite a bit, and I normally change a few words and sentences, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the editing phase.

      When it comes to longer work, though – or fiction – then I find that I need to do a lot more editing.

      And yes, good point that we’re all different: I’m always wary of advice which says that there’s “one true way” when it comes to writing…

  5. I’m the student editor for our English department’s monthly newsletter. Almost every month my faculty advisor has a suggestion but usually follows it with, “If this is going to take you more than five minutes, don’t do it.” No matter how long it takes, I always do it. “Sometimes you just have to hit print, Katie,” is his refrain. I’m not very good at that part…

    I’m sure the same thing is happening with my fiction, but I’m in denial about it right now.

    Katie

    • I think that acting on editorial suggestion is usually valid (so long as you agree!) It’s more of a problem if you end up spending hours on your own tweaking words, without ever showing your work to anyone.

    • It’s definitely worth doing a proof read before posting; I agree with you that you don’t want to spend hours agonising over blog posts, though. Better to post something with a couple of typos than to never post at all!

  6. I like the distinction you make re: editing requirements for project types. Digital media is easy to edit, though when I do this I feel like I’m working for the Ministry of Truth.

    I’ve found that I’ll use excessive line editing (esp fiction) as a form of procrastination (at the expense of structural editing). When this happens, I might spend an hours on a couple graphs, only to realize that they didn’t add anything to overall story. The page is thrown away and I’m two hours closer to death with nothing to show for it.

    A work is never finished, so I usually aim for ‘finished enough.’
    Seth M. Baker’s last blog post ..How Creating Systems Can Make Your Microbusiness Rock

    • Yeah, it’s VERY easy to get carried away on tweaking lines of fiction … only to realise that you have to scrap a whole scene.

      “Finished enough” sounds like a good target!

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