When Is Careful Editing Too Much Editing?
As most writers would tell you, there’s a fine line between careful writing and analysis paralysis—and when you're in the middle of making revisions, it's hard to forget that you could always edit your work more. That’s why sometimes, in the quest for the perfect way of saying something, a writer can get hung up on minute changes and revisions, ever in search of an elusive sense of completion, and not be able to let a piece go.
How do you know when this has happened to you—when your careful editing has become too much editing and now it’s time for you to hit publish already?
Below, take a look at the top three telltale signs that it’s time to overcome perfectionism, release your writing and move on:
1. You’ve Already Edited. Thoroughly.
A top sign that your piece is ready to publish is when you’ve already edited well. How can you be sure you’ve edited sufficiently? Run down this checklist of important editing tasks:
- You’ve corrected grammar and spelling errors. Not to set the bar too high, but “good writing is error-free,” says Anna Goldsmith of Copyblogger. “This means perfect spelling and no typos.” Thankfully, writing clean content isn't as impossible as it sounds: Run spell-check as a first step. Read through your writing a few times. Look out for commonly misused words that sound alike such as to, two and too; your and you’re; their, they’re, there, etc. Double-check spellings of proper names. Refresh yourself on ways to make your copy readable. Then, trust the fact that you've performed these checks.
- You’ve read it out loud. Reading your writing out loud can be one of your most powerful editing tools, exposing the rhythm and clarity of your text. “Sometimes when we write, we create filler,” says Jane Friedman of Writer's Digest. “We don’t think deeply about what we’re saying. We include throwaway lines. Reading something out loud has an unusual way of bringing this to your attention.” In the effort to carefully edit your text, read it out loud a few times—then move on.
- You’ve slept on it. One time-tested key to effective editing is getting a fresh perspective—just once. By getting away from your work for a little while, even if just for a night, you help your mind take a break while you find new inspiration and distraction. “Wait at least a night, and preferably longer,” says Dustin Wax at Lifehack.org. “Ideally, you want to forget what you wrote, so that — again — your brain doesn’t see what it expects to see but only sees what’s really there.” Then, once you’ve allowed yourself to return to your work anew, revise and rearrange and rest assured that you’ve done what you should.
- You’ve enlisted help from a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes you’ve got to get an outsider’s opinion before you can really rest. “If you have a critique partner that rips your work to shreds and points out every glaring plot hole, good. Hold on to them. They’re invaluable,” says Avalon Jaedra of Writability. But she also adds, “After they’ve gone through your manuscript and you’ve made the necessary changes, trust your readers.”
2. Your Inner Critic Is Talking.
Many writers recommend enforced periods of just writing or just editing, if only to quiet the voice of their inner editor questioning and revising every word they write while they’re writing them. So if the reason you’re hanging on to your article is because you’re sure it’s not good enough, ask yourself why. Could it be that your inner critic is at work? Consider these signs that the voice you’re heeding isn’t the one to listen to.
- You’re worrying about liking it enough. Here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter if it’s an actor, a painter or a writer—creatives seldom feel confident about their own work after it’s done. That’s probably why many don’t like to view or read their own materials years later. We all know something could have been better—a paragraph rearranged or a point better made—and if we wait until the moment when we no longer feel that way, we could be waiting forever.
- You’re letting fear dictate your editing. Is the reason you keep editing because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t? That your work will be rejected or misunderstood or deemed incomplete? “Perfectionism can be a good thing. It can lead to great accomplishments. But it can be damaging, too,” says says Meghan Ward of Writerland. “It can slow us down, it can prevent us from putting ourselves out there, from taking risks. And in order to get published, we need to be willing to put ourselves out there. We need to take risks—in our writing and in our lives.”
- You’re after some illusory perception of genius. Writers often get hung up on the value of the finished writing of someone they admire, discouraging themselves from completing a project until it meets that perceived level of greatness. “If you aspire to high level creative work, and/or depend on your creativity for a living, then the myth of genius could seriously damage your work and your career,” says Mark McGuinness of Lateral Action.
3. Time Is Not on Your Side.
Here’s the bottom line: overediting wastes time. Every minute you spend taking commas out and putting them back in, rewriting the introduction only to change it back or staring out the window while you wish for inspiration is a minute you could be spending on your next project—and what’s more, the point where you have to finish (say, because of a deadline) is still going to come. When you know time is against you, it's probably time to metaphorically lay down that red pen.
- Your productivity is suffering. The truth is, over-editing can be the biggest time suck known to the writing profession. When you’re no longer actively improving your piece, whether through revising grammar mistakes or reading your words aloud, you know you’re wasting time.
- It’s your deadline. For some writers, the only way to finally stop tweaking is to face a deadline—whether real or self-imposed. “When that deadline comes, I’m done—whether I like it or not,” says Nina Amir of WriteNonfictionNow.com. “At that point, I stop working on the article, essay or book. Many times I don’t ever reread the piece. I don’t want to know if I could have improved it!” The reason deadlines like this can be so helpful is that they force a writer to end the quest for perfection. While of course writing can always be improved, seeking the epitome of creativity, clarity and brilliance is a self-defeating quest that may never feel satisfied.
So after you've edited, recognized the voice of your inner critic and realized it's time to stop tweaking, avoid the vicious cycle of editing, reediting, repeat---and take our advice: give yourself permission to be done.
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