“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

Stop Editing Already: When It’s Time to Put Down the Pen and Submit

As I work my way through round five of edits on my first fiction manuscript, I keep asking myself … am I there yet?

And I never quite seem to be. There’s always one more round of edits to address.

Stop Editing Already: When It’s Time to Put Down the Pen and Submit

I work on this manuscript around a ton of other things in my life, including a full time job. So I’m lucky to get an hour to look at it a day. And I’m a slow writer. So, so slow.

But still. I’ve been in full editing mode for over a year. How many edits can a girl do?

Finally I just had to look my editing problem straight in the eye and ask the big question: How do I know when it’s time to stop editing already?

And luckily, I came up with some answers. It’s time to stop editing when …

… When you can’t tell what’s good and what’s bad anymore

Sometimes you work on something so hard and for so long, you can’t tell what’s what anymore. When you reach this point, step away from the computer. Congratulations, you’ve edited so hard you’re no longer qualified to edit your own work.

Don’t worry, it happens to all of us at some point. The most important thing is that you recognize the situation you’re in. In this case, submit your work to another person to edit it before submitting for publication.

… When you give up

If you’ve been editing so long you’re ready to throw in the towel, why not take a break and submit your story to an editor look at it? You know, before you take a lighter to it.

Someone with a fresh perspective may be able to point out options you hadn’t thought of. Or even better, their comments about what’s already working may be just what you need to regain your confidence.

… When your changes stop being meaningful

“Dirty” or “muddy”? Is this sentence better here or in the next paragraph? “A” or “the”?

When your edits reach a point where you’re sweating over one tiny thing after another, all you’re doing is holding yourself back.

Put down that pen. It’s time to start submitting your work.

… When you don’t know what you’re editing for anymore

There’s all sorts of edits to run your work through: A content edit, a copy edit, a line edit, the edit to see if this new scene I just added it working, the edit to ensure detail consistency—you get the idea.

So if you’re editing your work without any goal left to review, kick back my friend, because you are ready to submit.

Now that you’ve got these guidelines … are you ready to stop editing?

Personally, I found that my manuscript isn’t at this stage yet—I still have a few items on my list that I know require further editing. But knowing what it will look like when I hit the end, well, that’s a night light at the end of the tunnel.

How close to done is your manuscript?

PRACTICE

Share a paragraph from a piece of work that’s got you stuck in the comments—and be sure to help others with their works too!

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • Helaine Grenova

    “I want you to promise you will watch over them, to your
    dying breath. Promise that they will never be without guidance and protection.
    Keep them safe as we will not. Change their names if you must, do anything and
    everything within your power to keep them safe. You will be granted powers to
    keep them safe, and to protect them. Guard them well, for without them, this
    world will surely perish.”

    “I swear.”

    As the mother lay dying, I carefully herd the three
    young boys out of the burning house. There is nothing that I can do for her. Or
    at least that is what I must tell myself. It is tempting to use my magic to extinguish
    the fire and save the mother, but that would only endanger the boys that I have
    sworn to protect. Young teenagers are easy targets; they are young enough to
    think that they are invincible but old enough to have seen that plans don’t
    always work well outside of the mind. I hate protecting teenagers. But I must
    protect them now, or else they will surely perish by the same flame that killed
    their mother.

    • Robert V Frazier

      Good work! Only one critique: the tense of the verb in “As the mother lay dying” doesn’t match the rest of the paragraph. Should be: “As the mother lays dying”.

    • Clara Bates

      Thats amazing! I got really into it, this makes me thirsty for more. The only thing I would keep an eye on is how many times the same word is used in one paragraph. Like the word “safe” in the first part. But other than that, great job. =)

  • Here’s another “when to stop”; When you realise that the edit you just made is simply reversing one you made last time. You’re going round in circles. Stop!

  • EndlessExposition

    These are a couple of paragraphs from my WIP, in a scene where my two main characters break into the police station. I have gone through and done a couple edits, but the phrasing still feels clunky in places. As always, reviews are much appreciated 🙂

    We were standing in what looked like a teacher’s break room. There were two small tables ringed by folding chairs, and a fridge. Alicia beckoned. “Follow me.” I did, as she crossed the room and slipped out. We were now in a long hallway. Alicia crept down it as quietly as a cat. I tried to imitate her, but to me it sounded like my scuffling footsteps
    echoed for ages. The silence was broken only by the muted buzzing behind the office
    doors on either side of us. The station was drab. The walls were milky white, the carpet was grey, the doors were steel and the frosted glass panels in them were laced with wire mesh. I could make out outlines of people behind some of the windows but so far no one seemed to have noticed us. Then we were voices approaching up ahead.

    Alicia grabbed my hand, tugged me in through a door and clicked it closed. The room was filled with filing cabinets and otherwise empty. We hunkered down until the voices faded and another door further away opened and shut. I let out the breath I’d been holding. Alicia opened the door and we left, walking a little faster now. We turned a corner. This hallway was shorter. Alicia walked right up to the end and turned to the last door on the left. She held a finger to her lips. Then she turned the doorknob and eased it open silently. She motioned for me to hold it so it wouldn’t close and stepped
    inside. It was a small office. There were filing cabinets and boxes along the back wall. A desk at the other end sat under a long glass window and seated at the desk was a woman, typing at a computer. All I could see of her was her blonde ballerina bun and her slender hands typing rapidly. Alicia crept up silently, put her head down right by the woman’s ear and whispered, “Boo.”

    • AB

      You are doing a great job here! I felt the tension at the slow progression up the hallway. I see two word edits and one scene edit that I would suggest – not that I know much more than you, but they did stand out to me. One is “then we were voices approaching…” probably a typo – “Then we heard voices…” Another is in the second paragraph, “…another door further away opened and shut.” I would suggest “farther” as it is used to refer to distance; whereas “further” usually means “in addition to.” And finally in your last scene, if the woman at the desk was facing a window, she would most likely perceive or actually see movement behind her, as the glass would function as a mirror. Now I want to know what happens next!

      • EndlessExposition

        You’re welcome to see a little more for such a helpful review! (The
        typos always get me.) Truth be told, I could use feedback on this
        section too. Physical descriptions are my weak point.
        The woman screeched, “Holy shit!” and rocketed out of her chair. Alicia
        doubled over with laughter. I was just confused. The woman turned
        around, hands on her hips. She was dressed in a black skirt suit and
        stiletto heels. She looked young, not much older than a college student.
        She was also gorgeous, like movie star gorgeous. Her features were
        small and delicate. Perched on the end of her nose were large, round
        wire rimmed glasses, through which she was glaring at Alicia. “How the
        fucking hell did you get in here?”

        “Hello Lucille,” Alicia chuckled. “Nice to see you too.”

        “I mean it, how’d you get in here?”

        “I picked the lock of course. I thought you might like a little surprise to enliven your day.”

        Lucille rolled her eyes and dropped back into her chair. “You’re such an ass.”

        “Only for you. You can come in now Alex.” I stepped
        inside and closed the door behind me. “I suppose I should make
        introductions. Alex – Lucille Carmichael, police secretary
        extraordinaire. Lucille – Alexandra MacBride.”

        • Helaine Grenova

          You use a lot of similar length sentences in this area which makes the whole thing seem choppy. If you changes some of the sentence lengths, especially in the first paragraph that would really help. For example ” Alicia doubled over with laughter. I was just confused. The woman turned around, hands on her hips.” could be changed to “I looked on in confusion as Alicia doubled over with laughter. The other woman was clearly not amused either, as she turned around with a frown marring her exquisite features. She put her hands firmly on her hips in a disapproving manner.”

          You don’t have to use what I said, it is just an idea of how to break up the short sentences and add some more detail. The dialogue is really good and leaves me wondering what will happen next. I hope this helps you out

          • AB

            Good ideas, Helaine!

    • Helaine Grenova

      I liked you post and have a few minor suggestions.

      Your phrase “scuffling footsteps echoed for ages.” seems a little disjointed. Perhaps use a softer adjective phrase like “scuffling footsteps echoed infinitely down the hallway.”

      I agree with AB’s comments as well. The phraseology is very good especially with the interchanging of sentence lengths. Overall good job! I definitely want to hear more.

  • AB

    I don’t have any works in progress, but I have promised to faithfully write a paragraph per day. Here is today’s offering:

    I greeted the patient at the reception desk. “How are you,
    Marie? Is everything going well for you?”

    “Well it was until a couple of weeks ago when my husband
    dropped dead of a heart attack!” she responded.

    I was shocked! Her husband was a construction worker, robust
    and hearty, tanned and the picture of health. “What happened?” I queried.

    “He was sitting at a table when he got dizzy, stood up, and
    passed out,” she told me. The people nearby immediately called 911 and since
    they were only a couple of blocks from the hospital, the ambulance got to him
    in record time. He was clinically dead, but was shocked back to life and his
    body chilled to slow the functioning of his organs. He was transferred via
    helicopter to the closest heart hospital, where he had immediate heart surgery
    for severe blockages. He was in the hospital for several weeks, slowly
    regaining life and health. The man who had been dead was coming home from the
    hospital the next week.

    It was an amazing story, and I was thrilled only a few weeks
    later to see Marie’s husband walk into the office. “You look pretty good for a
    dead man,“ I joked.

    He said, “I’m a walking miracle!”

    • EndlessExposition

      I would be interested to know more about these characters. I think you have a great premise for a short story here.

      • AB

        Thank you, Endless Exposition! I like your suggestion. As I noted to Robert, these are real people – they are more interesting than any characters I could invent. Every time I see that man, I am amazed all over again.

    • Cindy

      AB – I agree – this would make a great short story. Love the surprising twist!

      • AB

        Perhaps I will see what I can do along these lines. Thanks for your input, Cindy!

    • Robert V Frazier

      Please let Marie tell the story in her own words. It’ll have more impact that way. (For instance, the last line of the long paragraph should be something like this, assuming the unnamed husband’s name is Jim: “Jim was dead, but he’s coming home from the hospital next week!”)

      For a writing exercise, this is remarkable!

      • AB

        Thank you, Robert. This is a true story from my job. The woman, “Marie” is actually hiring someone (someone else) to write her story and find a publisher. It IS an amazing story! It might be interesting to use for the backbone of a short story.

  • Claire

    I finished writing a short story that I’ve edited five times. Honestly, I’m sick of reading it, so I put it aside for now. I’ve written two endings for it and can’t decide which one will work better with the story. In short, the story deals with a married couple (Jake and Lucia) and their two teenage children. It’s close to Christmas, and the husband is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes the rigors of therapy. They’re short on money and expect to have an uneventful Christmas until the husband receives an envelope in the mail with a substantial amount of money a few days before Christmas from an anonymous benefactor. The endings are as follows:

    Ending 1:
    That evening they were all in the living room admiring the last touches they had added to the Christmas tree. Outside, it was cold and the winter wind buffeted the bare branches of the trees.
    A solitary, thin figure stood across the street from their home. His hair was scant and gray, and his face was sallow and weathered, as if he had experienced too many winters in the past.
    He put his hands in his coat pockets as he hunched his body against a gust of cold wind. He could make out Jake, Lucia and the kids through the living room bay window fussing over the tree and engaged in wrapping gifts.
    He smiled—a yellow smile that had been the result of many years of chain-smoking. He took out a cigarette and lit it, exhaling the smoke with satisfaction. According to
    him, it didn’t matter whether he smoked or not anymore.
    He took a long drag and flicked the cigarette into the street. “Another job well done,” he
    said under his breath. A fit of coughing surged from his lungs. Before it got worse, he looked around, adjusted his coat and resumed walking down the deserted street.

    Ending 2:
    A solitary, tall, thin figure stood across the street from their home. His hair was full and gray, almost luminescent under the moonlight.
    He put his hands in his coat pockets as he hunched his body against a gust of wind. He could make out Jake, Lucia and the kids through the living room bay window fussing over the tree and engaged in wrapping gifts.
    He smiled, took out a cigarette and lit it. The exhaled smoke disappeared in the winter wind. He took a long drag and put the cigarette out with satisfaction. This was another job well done.
    He looked around the deserted street and started walking. As he adjusted his coat, a long, silvery feather slid from under the backside of his coat, falling to the ground. A gust of wind blew making the feather take flight, landing on the front stoop of Jake and Lucia’s home.

    • Robert V Frazier

      I like ending 1 better. I would suggest only one change: “He no longer thought it mattered whether he smoked or not.” instead of: “According to
      him, it didn’t matter whether he smoked or not anymore.” If you want to keep the feather from ending 2, I suggest adding just this to the end of ending 1: “A long, silvery feather slid from under the backside of his coat, falling to the ground.” Leave it there; don’t move it to Jake and Lucia’s house.

      Hope that helps. Feel free to ignore my advice, if it doesn’t.

      • Claire

        Thanks for taking the time to read my post, Robert. Your suggestions are very helpful and upon making the changes, the content reads much better. Thanks again for your input.

  • Cindy

    New Orleans is literally a melting pot of cultural
    diversity. You have people who come to
    visit; the city gets in their blood, so they never leave, and then you have the
    natives who staunchly support what some might say is a lost cause; a city below
    sea level swimming in its own decadence and debauchery.

    It was 5:00 in the morning and the
    street sweepers were beginning to clean the crescent city as, some of its occupants
    were just going to sleep from the night before.
    The rank smell wafting from Bourbon Street’s gutters awakened a sensory
    smorgasbord of both history and garbage.
    The street’s only inhabitants were partygoers stumbling towards Café
    Du’Monde for beignets and Café Au Lait hoping to stave off their imminent
    hangovers and the ladies of the night making their way home after a night of
    work.

    • Robert V Frazier

      Suggested edit:

      New Orleans is a melting pot of cultural diversity. You have people who come to visit; the city gets in their blood, so they never leave. And then you have the natives who staunchly support what some might say is a lost cause: a city below sea level swimming in its own decadence and debauchery.

      It was 5:00 in the morning and the street sweepers were beginning to clean the crescent city as some of its occupants were just going to sleep from the night before. The rank smell wafting from Bourbon Street’s gutters awakened a sensory smorgasbord of both history and garbage. The street’s only inhabitants were partygoers stumbling towards Café Du’Monde for beignets and Café Au Lait, hoping to stave off their imminent hangovers, and the ladies of the night making their way home after a night of work.

      Explanations:

      Don’t use “literally” for claims that are figures of speech. Literally, melting pots smelt ore. Also, you might want to come up with a more original metaphor and drop “melting pot” completely.

      The second sentence was drifting into run-on territory. I broke it into two. You might want to drop the “And” and begin the second sentence with “Then”; that’s a stylistic choice.

      Use the colon, not the semicolon, after “lost cause”. Semicolons are used to separate two complete clauses, and “a city below sea level swimming in its own decadence and debauchery” has no verb.

      The comma after “the crescent city as” is unnecessary.

      The phrase “hoping to stave off their imminent hangovers” needs to be set off by commas. As written, it sounds like the partygoers are hoping to stave off both hangovers and the ladies of the evening.

      Other than that, both paragraphs are good. Feel free to ignore my suggestions, of course.

      • Cindy

        Thank you very much Robert. I appreciate you taking the time to give me your feedback.

        • Robert V Frazier

          You’re welcome! I hope my suggestions were helpful. I know it’s no fun to receive criticism.

          • Cindy

            They were very helpful. If you can’t take criticism – you won’t get better!

  • Lauren Timmins

    Does anybody have any advice on how to edit without getting overwhelmed?

    • Clara Bates

      If you write on the computer try turning the words white except for the paragraph you are working on. I’m not sure if it works tho, I’ve never tried it myself.

    • Peter Douglass

      My favorite method is to print out my writing onto physical paper, and then write it up again onto the computer. Looking at it on physical form and having to essentially “rewrite” the whole thing gives away the bad flow in paragraphs, words that just don’t make sense, or need for more explanation.

  • David

    I usually spend so much time “editing-as-I-go” that I burn myself out and lose my train of thought. The net result is another unfinished something or other …

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  • I feel like I’ve been editing my WIP for years, but I’m closing in on the third round of beta readers/critiques. A few more edits and it will be as close to ready as I can get it. Editing sometimes feels like standing with your arms behind your back and letting someone punch you in the stomach over and over.