Writing a Book? How to Know When to Stop Editing and Move On

Writing a Book? How to Know When to Stop Editing and Move On

You’ve done it: written a novel, revised it, sought outside opinions and revised some more. Maybe your magnum opus has gone through endless drafts.

But something’s still not right. Either it’s not shaping up into the book you hoped it would be, or it’s not getting the reception you want from agents and publishers.

It’s tempting to keep re-working the manuscript. I spent years laboring over a historical novel set during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. How many iced mochas did I down in the coffee shops where I did my writing? How many hours did I spent in library archives perusing microfilm copies of 19th-century newspapers? There’s no telling. Even with all that effort, the story never quite worked.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your writing career is to shelve your project and begin anew. Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re wondering, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Quantity trumps quality

Fail Fast, Fail Often tells a story about a ceramics class. Half the class is graded on the quantity of work they produce, and the other half is graded on its quality. Anyone in the first group who makes fifty pounds of pots gets an A. Anyone who produces a great pot in the second group gets an A, even if she makes only one pot for the whole semester.

Spoiler alert: The students in the quantity group make the best pots. While the quality kids are hemming and hawing over how to make the perfect pot, the quantity kids are experimenting, learning from their mistakes and getting pretty darn handy with mud.

Writers could benefit from adopting this quantity-over-quality mentality, as well as remembering writing is a craft that benefits from repetition.

You may be holding yourself back from your best work

Stephen King is one of my favorite writers, and the man is prolific — he’s penned 54 books. But compare book one (published in 1982) of The Dark Tower series to book five (published in 2003). In between those volumes, he published 26 novels.

King becomes a much stronger writer after he has written dozens of books. Where would the world be today if King had spent a decade polishing Carrie? We wouldn’t have The Stand, The Shining, Cujo, Christine… the list continues.

It gets easier

My debut novel, which comes out next month, is not my first, second or third manuscript. It’s actually my fourth full-length novel. And while it is better than the three that came before it, it is nowhere near as good as my fifth manuscript, which I’m plugging away at now.

Each time, the process gets a little easier and the outcome gets a little better. I’ve learned plotting, pacing, dialogue, conflict, how to cut away the dead weight and recognize the sound of my own voice — by doing these things again and again. If I was still working on the same novel I’d started in 2004, I’d be very much like the proverbial dog returning to its vomit. (It was a really terrible draft.)

Don’t become emotionally attached to your work

Writers often use birth as a metaphor for the writing process. They describe their relationships with their manuscripts as a sort of dead-end romance.

But a manuscript is not a baby. It is not a lover. While I understand why writers develop emotional attachments to something that occupies so much of their time, minds and hearts, this is not a productive way to use your energy. Give those words a beginning, middle and end, and move on.

Starting anew is a sign of success

A lot of writers believe if they “abandon” their manuscripts, they’re admitting failure, that they’ve wasted their time. Starting a new project isn’t failure. In fact, it’s the opposite of failure.

Every sentence you write is a success. Every sentence you write lives inside you forever and makes each subsequent sentence better. No sentence you write is ever wasted.

Have you ever struggled with whether you should let go of a project or give it one more revision? How did you make your decision?

Filed Under: Craft


  • John says:

    Thanks for this. Literally thirty seconds ago I was sitting with my finger poised on the ‘send’ button. I decided to take one last look and, of course I found things I wanted to change. This is a fourth (perhaps fifth) draft and I wondered if I was being pedantic.
    A quick Google search led me here, and to the realisation that yes, yes I am being pedantic. Thanks again for the wakeup call.

  • Michelle says:

    Thank you so much for the info. I’ve just started having enough confidence to even write or considering putting myself out there to listen to other writers and editors. I have gotten more help from Pinterest, where I found your info. and I’ve been looking at every angle of the writing, not just the beginning and it all helps tremendously. I have so many stories in my head it’s hard to know where to start.
    Thank you!!!

  • Evangeline says:

    I’ve had this open in my browser for several days now and finally read it today – – and it really hit the spot, thank you! I’ve been working on a novel for years now and never been completely happy with it. And I always felt I had to finish it and get it perfect before starting on something else. While I still feel it has potential, a few weeks ago I went back to another novel idea that I’d only just dipped my toes in with, and I’m surprised how much more joy I have in writing this one and how much progress I’m making. Your post was encouraging, the first one isn’t failure, but gaining experience; thank you!

  • shirly says:

    I’m a wanna be, a dabbler who has scribbled many ‘pieces’ before being jolted by an improbable idea. Now 400 pages later I am struggling with an ending. My nana be writer hubby read it and offered advise as to the main character’s loss of of spotlight as I sort of tidied it and gave it a mills & boon happy ever after type ending. My first thought however were to abruptly end the story with doubts and questions waiting to be answered ,,, in a sequel? For the time being my manuscript is now scattered in pieces over several USB sticks and my mojo is lying dormant in the bottom kitchen drawer.

  • Amy Morse says:

    Fab, thank you. This is spot on. The point about it getting easier, really resonates with me – Since publishing my first book in 2013 I’ve been penning away like a crazy person and I’m now working on book 4. Each book is better than the last and each time it gets easier. Keep on doing it, do it every day and you’ll soon find your mojo and when you do, it’s addictive!

  • Jay Lemming says:

    Missy, you are spot on about this. I spent close to 10 years working on-again-off-again on a single novel. Obviously, I was working on other projects during that time too but the emotional attachment that you mentioned had a lot to do with why I continued to work at the same manuscript. I only decide to let the thing go a couple years ago; it took some effort to do so, but I knew it was the right and mature thing to do. Your post really resonated with me. Thanks for sharing. Jay

  • Britt Malka says:

    I loved your example with the ceramics class.

    So writing more is better than polishing longer. Interesting. Especially, since I get easily bored when I’m revising.

    Thanks a lot.

  • Joey says:

    This is such a timely post. I have been laboring to fine tune my book and everytime i go through it, There something that is not making the publisher contented. Thanks for the post. will shelve the idea for now. But will come back to it later.

  • Pimion says:

    Thanks for the article!
    You say “Don’t become emotionally attached to your work”. That’s pretty hard to do. More then that, if you treat your book “like a baby or lover” it really influences it. It brings emotions and soul to it.

  • deb palmer says:

    Thanks for sharing this. After several revisions, I treat my so-called polished chapters like Jack the Ripper; scared to look back at them, knowing the editing knife is ready to slash. I am months away from completing my first book. I can’t even walk by a page without deleting a word or deciding it needs a complete rewrite.
    It’s comforting to know I am not alone in this.
    BTW: I agree that this book is not my baby, but I wouldn’t trust the mother bear to willingly let go of it.

  • Although there is probably no getting around the sense that a book is one’s “baby,” there is no question that it is vitally important to know when to move on to the next project.

    I have written two novels, neither of them published, yet the time I spent working on them was very far from wasted. I now work as a freelance editor, and my experience as a novelist (in some ways, especially as an unpublished novelist) has been of great help to me in working with fellow-authors, whether fiction or nonfiction. I sometimes joke that my job is telling people who give me money that their baby is ugly, but the truth is, I am able to be very supportive and empathetic precisely because I’ve “been there.”

    The other reason the time spent on those novels was not wasted is the connection between writing and “spirituality” in its broadest sense, that is, getting in touch with whatever matters most to us and gives our lives meaning. To write is to give voice to the soul. Published writing sometimes gives voice to a reader’s soul, too, but even writing that never sees the light of day is a spiritual exercise for the writer.

    I woke up this morning feeling that my third novel might be ready for me to write it. Even if this one remains unpublished, too, it will not be a waste of time. It will make me an even better editor and put me more in touch with who I am.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC

    • that is such a profound and beautiful way to look at it.

      • Thank-you! I find writing a profound and beautiful experience!

        In fact, I feel so strongly about the spiritual quality of writing that I am going to start offering writing coaching, or “authorial direction.” There are lots of coaches who can help writers improve their grammar or make their plots more compelling, but in addition to that, I want to help people use their writing to put them in touch with who they are and who they may be called to become.

  • Julie Ellis says:

    The story about a ceramics class became really good example for me. It’s a big problem, and very hard to do something “perfect” at first attempt. But many writers (me too) always forget about it. Thanks!

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