Writers have to expect one major process in finishing a piece of work: editing.
Some writers hate it. Others don’t mind—they know the end result will be better, and they dutifully work over their words until the whole piece is gloriously finished.
But then there are the writers who take it a little too far. We know rewriting will make our work better and better (right?), and have become so comfortable with the procedure that we constantly edit while we’re writing. The distinction between “editing” and “rewriting” then blurs, but however you define those two, we tend to do either or both of them way too early in the writing process.
As anyone who has gone through this knows, it’s a problem. As sharp as our early, meticulous drafts may be, many of these drafts don’t actually get completed. Being critical of our own words before we’ve given them freedom to even sit on the page for a while can kill the creative flow of whatever story we’re trying to tell. Forward motion becomes so much harder than it needs to be, leading to easy and early burn-out compared to writers who have learned how to just blaze on and take things one step at a time.
So what do we do? I scoured the interwebs and found some practical tips, as well as advice on how to shift our thinking away from the minute details that constantly distract us. Some ideas seem super obvious, but then again, I know I haven’t utilized any of them often enough recently…
1. When was the last time you just read your work?
Practice re-reading what you have so far without rewriting. If this means skimming over your paragraphs quickly just to stop yourself from mentally editing them, that’s fine—just go for it, then do it again. Get used to seeing your words as part of a whole, and enjoy your story! This is about training yourself to see the big picture and putting yourself in your reader’s shoes. If it helps, go ahead and print yourself a physical copy of your story so far—removing the access to your keyboard, and not allowing yourself a pen as you read it through.
2. If your story is divided into chapters or sections, make it a rule not to rewrite a chapter more times than you’ve rewritten the others.
Unless it’s the first or last chapter and you know that’s all you have left to do, don’t let any other chapters demand your attention more than the others. Again: big picture. If you haven’t finished your book yet, don’t allow yourself to rewrite a chapter more than once before first drafts of all the other chapters are finished.
3. Try sticking to a three-draft structure.
First draft for writing, second draft for filling plot holes and honing characters, third draft for individual words, sentences, grammar, and typos. No cheating.
4. Finished with your three drafts but still don’t feel finished?
Trust me, you’re finished for now. As painful as it may be to show anything less than perfect to anyone, it’s time to send your story to beta readers. Friends, family, whoever you trust to be honest with you. They’ll be able to tell you whether they feel like there’s more work to be done or not.
5. Remove distractions.
Editing’s easy to do even when there’s a lot going on around you (at least for serial editors). But if your challenge is in writing new words and pages, realize that it’s going to take much more focus. Eliminate or reduce distractions in your environment as much as possible (whatever you consider to be a distraction), but also clean up your mental space as well. For example, I have folders on my computer containing documents of barely-started stories that I know aren’t going to go anywhere. As difficult as it is for a digital pack rat like me to let go, I do feel so much more free after just deleting those files and focusing on the ones actually relevant to my story. However you can practice letting go, even in everyday things that have nothing to do with writing, do it.
6. Write something totally different.
This may seem counter-intuitive based on the last point, but try starting a totally new story in one sitting, with no intention of continuing or finishing it later. That means no editing, just blazing forward for at least 1000 words. It doesn’t matter if it’s complete crap—your imagination needs the exercise so it can push forward the story you actually care about when you return to it. Sometimes all you need is that reminder of what creative momentum feels like.
7. Don’t lose sight of the soul of your story.
Are all your rewrites really getting you closer to your vision, or are they just a compulsive restructuring done out of fear? Fear of failure, fear of sharing your story with other eyes, fear of not blowing everyone away? Whatever it is, every writer has felt it at some point. What separates writers from authors is the ability to just finish the project and let it fly.
If your rewrites aren’t getting you closer to your ultimate vision for your story (whether you’ve completed a first full draft or not), re-evaluate how you can actually accomplish that. Make a list. If you can’t find any discrepancies, maybe it’s not your story—just your feelings about it. If you’ve truly lost your passion for it and can’t seem to rewrite your way back, there’s absolutely no shame in letting go and using that experience to write a new, better story you can be excited about.
If you simply don’t like your story anymore, chances are you may have just been around it too much. Take a break. Don’t think about it, don’t read it. After a month or more, come back to it and give it an honest look. Be as objective as possible, and if you still hate it, send it to some friends just to be sure you’re not biased against yourself. Just because it may not have turned out exactly how you first expected, doesn’t mean it’s a terrible story—and your beta readers will be able to point out all the great things about it that you probably can’t see. Of course, if it isn’t that great, it’s still not a loss. Once again: use that experience to write something better that you will also love.
How do you get over compulsive editing, and what advice would you offer others? Leave a comment, write a response, or tweet me @thickrimmedgirl to share!