The question is, how many edits is too many? Is there a golden number? Can a writer edit a novel
ad infinitum, or is there a danger it will eventually spoil the whole thing?
The answer is as individual as the writer, but it’s all about balance. Every writer knows the importance of redrafting and editing and many worry about how many drafts they should go through before a story is ready for the world, but it’s about finding a balance that works for the individual.
Let’s look at the main problems of re-writing.
Lack of rewrites
On the whole, a lack of novel edits underscores a writer’s inefficiency and lack of experience because not even established writers can write a perfect story in the first draft – they may take several edits, and first time writers certainly won’t achieve acceptable standards under three edits.
Many writers don’t invest time in rewriting and redrafting prior to sending their work to agents or publishers and they don’t always realise that there is still a lot of work needed on their novel. That is one of the many reasons some MSS are rejected immediately without a second glance.
It’s surprising how many writers believe they can write a fantastic, publishable novel in no time at all, and with hardly any re-writing. If they can, they are a genius. And I’ve not yet met one.
Without a doubt, the first two drafts of any novel are unpublishable.
Main problems with too few edits:
- Potential problem areas – like plot flaws - haven’t been spotted.
- The story isn’t yet strong enough to be considered completed.
- The writer hasn’t noticed spelling and grammar errors.
- The writer hasn’t paid enough attention to the art of novel writing.
- The writer has rushed the whole thing.
- Overall, there is a higher chance the novel may be rejected because of all the above.
Too many rewrites
In complete contrast to too few edits, there is the problem of too many rewrites. Eventually, redrafting will just spoil the novel - there is a danger that the story you set out to write ends up so ‘surgically’ enhanced that it no longer resembles the original story – the intrinsic core of the story has been lost.
This is a particular problem with perfectionists, who draft and re-draft in a constant battle for a near perfect story and continue on an infinite, self-propagating cycle – novels will never be published because nothing will ever be sent out because the writer is never satisfied or not confident that it’s not perfect enough.
It’s not unusual to find these kind of writers on their 8th, 9th or even 10th draft - they’ve been working on the book for many years, decades in some extreme cases. They always say ‘one more draft and it will be complete', but that one more draft turns into another and another...and so on. It never truly ends.
Of course, not every writer is a perfectionist, but it’s worth remembering that re-writing a novel has the potential to become infinite with rewrites, and ultimately unfinished, and only you can break that cycle of rewriting and editing your work in a constant battle for satisfaction.
Another problem is that sometimes it’s easy to become so bogged down with the intricacies of the story – to become so close to it or completely immersed in it - that you no longer see blatant errors. Sometimes it’s hard to stand back from your work and see it in a different light.
The best way to counter this problem is to send your work out to agents for for critique, then you will get the kind of feedback you need in order to progress. It will help you understand where you might need to improve and it might also help you step back from the entire novel and look at it with a fresh perspective.
Main problems with too many edits:
- Writing ad infinitum in the belief you can make it better – it ends up spoiling the story.
- The writer loses sight of the importance of the novel because of too many drafts.
- The novel loses strength after numerous re-writes and becomes weak.
- The writer is never satisfied with the result, so the self-perpetuating cycle continues – the curse of perfectionism.
- The writer become too close to the story to notice any errors.
- The story becomes stagnant beyond repair.
It’s a balancing act not to rewrite too much, because there is a limit to how much you can improve a story. Eventually, there comes a point when re-writing becomes counter-productive and writers have to learn to understand when that point is, where their own personal ‘ceiling’ lies.
If you have gone past five, six or seven edits or more, try to step back from the story and ask the following questions:
- Can I realistically improve the work further?
- Have I spoiled the story’s intrinsic core?
- Have I become too close to the whole thing that I can’t see the errors?
- Can I trust someone to give me thorough, positive feedback to help me establish points 1 and 2?
- Am I brave enough to send it out to publishers and agents?
- Can I make this the LAST draft? Do I really need to rewrite?
- Am I brave enough to accept defeat on this novel, learn from the process and move on?
- Can I work to a realistic threshold from now on?
The simple truth is that it’s just not practicable to rewrite for eons. There is a ceiling, a point where you have to stop, and in my experience over the years, I have found that the most productive number of edits is five.
infinitum and spoiled the whole work.
In Part 2, I’ll show how the five stage editorial drafting process works.