I have a confession: trying to find the right words takes me ages. I obsess over sentence structure, vocabulary, and descriptions, pouring my time and energy into the black hole of unnecessary edits.
It’s a harmful compulsion, and I know it. The more changes I make, the more I hate my work-in-progress, and the less productive I become. I forget the big picture and throttle my motivation. Worst of all, my creativity ebbs. But restraining myself seems impossible.
Can chronic over-editors dare to hope for a cure?
I’ve yet to conquer my unending quest for perfectionism, but my struggles have taught me a few lessons. For starters, I need to leave my stories alone long enough to refresh my perspective so I can finish projects without burning out.
The Blindness of Vigilance
Before I suggest solutions, I need to provide a clearer definition of the problem. What is over-editing, and why is it bad?
The line between healthy and unhealthy editing is usually the duration. When you begin the revision process, you’re wearing a pair of shiny new mental glasses. Including more specificity and streamlining your prose is easy because you can see which parts need refining.
But the longer you stare at an individual paragraph, the foggier those glasses become. You’ll lose track of how many times you’ve recast a sentence and wonder if you’ve been misspelling the plural of “moose” all of your life when it should be “meese.” The fear that your writing won’t ever be “good enough” will drive you to frenetically switch between hitting backspace and the letter keys, scratching up your precious lenses.
The law of diminishing returns applies here. The more time you spend honing a section, the smaller the improvements will become and the slower you’ll move forward. But you can’t afford to drain yourself since, as a writer, you’re probably already dealing with existential dread, a tight budget, and a cramped schedule. So how do you break the cycle?
My tips are going to be flexible. Four exercises helped me regain my vision for my stories and reduced my tendency to over-edit, but you don’t have to treat my list like a prescribed formula. If one or two of the ideas ease the pressure for you, grand. If not, experiment with alternatives. The point is to discover what rituals will interrupt your habit of over-editing so you can implement those when your mind is exhausted.
Tactic #1: Study Another Author’s Prose
When I tweak a passage over and over again (and head-desk in frustration that I’m failing to enhance it), I forget how to use words to paint images. To revive my imagination, I choose a style of prose that captivates me and pick it apart. Daeus Lamb, a member of our leadership team, did this with The Book Thief. He hand-copied the text every night until he deciphered how Zusak crafted such incredible metaphors. Personally, I like analyzing Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars to uncover why it gives me such a vibrant experience.
If you’re tired of being trapped in an editing loop, pull one of your favorite novels off the shelf, pair it with a notebook, and jot down a handful of paragraphs to remind your brain how to write visually.
Tactic #2: Reevaluate the Scene
Sometimes I wear myself out doing CPR on a patch of prose that refuses to come to life when my phrasing isn’t the issue. For example, over-editing is not the topic I set out to cover in my latest submission. I went through two different article premises before arriving at this one. I didn’t have enough content for the first, and the second felt like carving an ice sculpture with a brick and a sheet of sandpaper. Whereas this article flowed out as smoothly as a kayak gliding through calm waters.
The same phenomenon can happen with stories. Your prose will sing the loudest when your characters are advancing the plot and their arcs. So when your sentences sound flatter than a submarine at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, examine the scene instead of focusing on the prose. Step away from your computer, and as you relax while carrying out menial tasks, mull over your characters’ goals and the scene’s structure. Either one (or both) might be ineffective.
Tactic #3: Set a Limit
Over-editing distorts my perception of time. I’ll dump half an hour and a pound of stress into a paragraph the size of a notecard before I realize it.
To prevent myself from being sucked into the vortex, I lower my expectations: instead of sitting down to compose the next Shakespearean sonnet, I decide that, if I meet my quota for the day, I’ll buy ink refills for my favorite pens or coffee at the nearby shop. The quality doesn’t matter as much as filling pages.
When you’re tempted to devote an entire afternoon to a smattering of paragraphs, pause to consider how important immaculate prose is at the stage you’re in. If you’re still fighting through the first few drafts, save the details for later. Remember all those files you had to delete because you revamped the plot? Don’t invest hours upon hours into micro-edits when large swatches of your book might disappear during macro-edits. Offer yourself a reward that will curb over-editing and concentrate on earning it.
Tactic #4: Edit with Readers in Mind
My standards for “perfect” prose are usually far higher than my standards for understandable prose. And sometimes the latter is all readers need. After all, the story is meant for them, and they’ll speed through the results of twenty minutes of thinking, rethinking, trimming, and adding in about two seconds.
When you can’t satisfy your inner critic, ask yourself if the prose will satisfy readers. If it’s clear enough to immerse them in the story, it might be time to let go. You’ll avoid over-flowering a section while preserving your sanity.
Want to learn more about achieving a balance between beauty and practicality? Our blog director and I co-wrote an article debunking misconceptions about stylistic editing, and we were both panelists on a podcast episode where we discussed how to write and edit with readers in mind.
Editing Can’t Fix Everything
Editing can turn a piece of straw into gold, but it doesn’t hold all of the power. Your brain isn’t invincible, and no matter how gifted you are, how hard you work, or how skilled you become, you’ll have moments when you’re tapped out. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you’ll recognize that editing isn’t the magic bullet you believe it is.
Even the best authors know that the greatest stories don’t come when they’re hovering in front of a computer screen but when they’re reading, dishwashing, listening, driving, and going through the motions of everyday life. So when you’re wrestling the urge to edit your manuscript within an inch of its life, remember that patience and perspective have as much of a role to play in the improvement of your novel as editing does.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.