When to Stop Revising

My mother’s greatest fear for me as a writer is that I’ll never stop revising.  When beginning writers learn about revision they always ask, “How do you know when to stop?”  My mother, and possibly these students, view revision as a path to perfection—which we know is endless and packed with illusions.  I prefer thinking about revision as child-rearing.  Even if your twenty-something isn’t fully mature, he’s able to interact in the world on his own.  Let him go.

That said, most writers (myself included) have a tendency to think their work is done prematurely.  My agent worked with me for two years to get my novel in shape.  My first publisher asked that I rewrite my memoir with two timeframes rather than three; this took me a full year.  So how do we know when to revise and when we’re done?  Here are the questions I recommend asking in response to a revision suggestion or idea:

  • Does it offer you the chance to learn something about your subject?  Will you grow by continuing to revise?
  • Does it offer you the chance to learn about craft?
  • Will the change help bring about wholeness in the manuscript?
  • Will the change help your story land more solidly on the truth?
  • If you’re resisting the suggestion, is it because the change feels wrong for the project?  Or because it would require too much effort?

When a work is complete, it feels balanced.  It has great integrity.  Responses from readers you respect (writing coaches, writing groups, agents, editors) no longer resonate with your inner tuning fork; suggestions tend to contradict one another or be petty.  Or you receive unanimous affirmation that your work is done.  Usually at the end of a project, an author longs to cut the umbilical cord and move his or her creative energy elsewhere.  It’s time for the piece to live its own life separate from the author.  But remember that finding a publisher may or may not be a sign of completion; books that desperately need development get published daily, and remarkable books are rejected all the time.  Once again we must trust the story, and the whisperings of our own heart.

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