The hardest part of writing a novel isn’t starting but knowing when to stop without perfectionism stalling progress. It’s easy for people to start something and fiddle around with it for years. I’ve spoken to writers who have taken 10-15 years and are still tweaking the same novel. Meanwhile, I’ve read drafts where I can tell the writer rushed through the process, and the manuscript requires many more revisions.
So, how do we ever know when to stop tweaking something to death?
Sometimes it’s necessary to do seven, eight, ten passes on a manuscript to get it exactly where you need it to be, and that’s with just your eyes on it. Even then, if you get an agent, said agent will want to do their own editorial pass before shopping it around. Then, if you’re lucky enough to land a traditional publisher, they’ll also want to take out their red pens and slash away. That can be eleven, twelve, thirteen editorial, cover-to-cover edits before you see it go to print.
However, there are stories out there of authors who’ve hardly had to do any revisions on their work. These writers tend to write very strong first drafts. But hey, we can’t compare ourselves to them. Each aspiring author’s journey is a purely unique experience.
Can A Writer Have Too Many Opinions?
Yes. Too many competing opinions can worsen a writer’s perfectionism. The biggest issue that I’ve noticed is when you decide to have many beta readers read your manuscript. I’m not talking about during a first draft, either. But if you’ve done multiple revisions on your own, have had beta readers, and then did more edits based on the additional feedback…you should be done, right? Wrong. Oftentimes, we’ll seek more beta readers to review our latest revised manuscript. They will then have their own opinions, and the cycle continues. This doesn’t even count your editor’s viewpoint. That’s if you’ve hired one.
In Dream Land: Twenty different beta readers read your manuscript, and 95% of them all love it. They all gush about how amazing of a writer you are. They can see your manuscript becoming the next New York Times Bestseller. Your writer’s ego has never felt better and has never been bigger. The remaining 5% have the same types of feedback. All of which are very minor tweaks that don’t involve a facelift.
The Reality: You can show your #WIP to twenty different people and receive a cluster-fuck of critiques, dislikes, loves, hates, pet peeves, direction to change plot points, requesting a new opening, cut a POV, or kill off a bunch of characters—OMFG!
Nightmare Scenario: You take the twenty different opinions, and you start editing and editing and editing. Soon, the vision you had for your story has been smashed into smithereens. The next thing you know, your story isn’t just unrecognizable, but when you ask for even more feedback…everyone thinks it’s worse. Well, because it probably is.
At some point, you have to cap yourself at a certain number of beta readers. How many eyes do you think you need on your manuscript before you’re ready to say you’re done? More isn’t always better. The more opinions, the more confusion. Sometimes it’s good to rely on two or three experienced writers/beta readers than a dozen.
Get Out Of Your Own Way
Alternatively, you might not have needed tons of opinions to fiddle with something to death. There are many reasons why we may find ourselves editing something for an eternity. Here are some quick ways to break the habit of perfectionism.
- Decide On An Editing Routine: After your first draft, you might revise it at least three times cover-to-cover on your own before sharing it with a critique partner or tightening it with a hired editor. Consider your final step after polishing it with an editor to be sharing your work with beta readers. That way, beta readers have your absolute best and final polished manuscript and not a super rough first draft. You don’t want beta readers getting tripped up over basic grammatical line stuff. It’s better for them to focus on the story, plot, characters, etc. Your editorial routine might be simpler than this. But however you decide to edit, stick with a routine. It’ll keep you better focused.
- Limiting Your Beta Readers: I know it’s tempting to join Facebook groups and share it with as many people as possible. It’s advantageous if they all complain about the same stuff. But it’s a nightmare when you literally have ten totally different opinions on your #WIP. I’ve also seen writers who shop for only people that will gush and tell them what they want to hear. That’s also counter-productive. You don’t want “yes” people filling you with superficial flattery because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. It’s like a bunch of relatives telling you you’re an amazing singer. Then you go on an “American Idol” audition only to find out all your relatives…um…they lied to your face. You need honesty. It’s important to find at least a couple of beta readers that will be very honest with you but do it in a way that won’t totally crush your spirit. You want people who know your genre and give you the good, not so good, and everything in-between kind of constructive feedback. Readers who say nothing but very negative and downright mean criticism can be extremely damaging to your growth as an aspiring author. So, be careful who you share your work with and how many people you decide to involve in your alpha/beta reading circle of trust.
- Get A Majority Consensus Before Major Revisions: You might think more readers will give you a bigger vote pool, but like I said, it can also make it a lot harder for you to know when you’re done editing. At the end of the day, it’s your story, and you have every right to keep or delete someone’s opinion of your work. A majority vote on something can really provide insight into what you need to change. This can be super helpful in reducing confusion and providing some direction on what is working and what can be fixed. Once you know what you need to change, make final changes, and then take a small break from it.
- Perfectionism Is A Form Of Procrastination: Tweaking and tweaking and tweaking your manuscript until it’s “perfect” means you might be afraid of the act of being done. Are you secretly dragging your feet because you don’t want to be done? Do you have imposter syndrome where you call yourself a writer but feel like you don’t deserve the label? It could be that deep down inside, like many of us, you have self-esteem issues that require investigating. Face your fears and tell yourself that you can be done. You deserve to cross the finish line like any other aspiring author, and you can do it.
The Bottom Line
Most writers battle with feelings of inadequacy, no matter how confident we might think we are. Perfectionism tends to be rooted in self-doubt and insecurities. If we’ve never felt down about our own work, we wouldn’t be human. At the end of the day, it’s essential to know when you’re done editing your manuscript. It’s never ever going to be good enough in someone else’s eyes or even our own. There will always be someone out there that will simply not like anything you or I write. They may never connect with our story, vision, or style. Ultimately, we can be our own worst critic. If you’ve done the best that you can and have revised your manuscript to the best of your ability, then save your #WIP as the final version and boldly move on to the next step. So, you can be done once and for all and move on to writing your next great story.