FAQ: Revision Edition
Q: How do you know when you’re done with a story?
A: If you have to ask, a part of you knows you’re not done.
Q: But what if the story is done, though? I’m worried about over-revising.
A: You’re probably worried about the wrong thing. For every writer who sticks with a manuscript too long, there are 99 writers who submit a piece that’s not ready yet. Any agent or editor will tell you the same thing: Half-baked submissions are way more common than over-revised manuscripts.
Q: I want to be done. Can I be done now?
A: Interrogate your motives. Do you really believe this manuscript is finished, or are you just in a hurry to publish?
(A confession: As much as I wish for my own answers to be yes, it’s finished and no, I’m not in a hurry to publish, that’s probably never going to be the case. The best I can hope for is yes, I believe this is finished and yes, I am in a hurry to publish. I am not proud of this, but let’s acknowledge the huge and growing pressure in the writing world to publish frequently and widely. Read the contributors’ notes in a magazine and tell me it doesn’t feel like an arms race. I hate this pressure, everyone I know hates it, and yet we all keep playing this numbers game, because we don’t know how to stop.)
Q: So, about my original question . . .
A: If you have to ask, put it aside for a while. “For as long as you can manage,” writes Zadie Smith in “That Crafty Feeling.” “A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: You need to become its reader instead of its writer.”
When you become your manuscript’s reader, the answer to your original question will probably be as obvious as though it was written on the page.
Q: It will probably be obvious?
A: Not definitely, though.
You could also give it to some trusted readers. But don’t trust them too much. They don’t know, either. Not really.
Q: I just googled my question. The internet says I’m done when my revisions start making the piece worse instead of better. That answer makes sense. Why can’t you be that straightforward?
A: That answer presumes that a writer is a good judge of her own work. Which is a funny thing to presume about the person who has the least critical distance on the manuscript. In my experience, writers are often the worst judges of their own material. (e.g. Me. The passages of my own work that make me cackle are almost always the most stupid and self-indulgent.)
Q: Like this Q&A format for your essay?
A: Stop trying to distract me from responding to your shitty internet advice, which also presumes that improvement happens in a linear way. Picture a line graph in the shape of a pyramid: First, the changes make a manuscript better, and then, at some point, the changes make it worse.
It would be cool if revision worked that way, but it doesn’t. Change is messy. Within every draft, you’ll make some good changes and some dumb changes. On a more holistic level, some drafts represent a leap forward with the story, and some drafts are a step back. But taking one step back doesn’t mean you’re about to tumble down the pyramid. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything. The next draft is as likely to be a breakthrough as it is to be a breakdown. You just don’t know.
Q: Can I get a second opinion?
A: Way ahead of you. I got a chance to see Yaa Gyasi recently, so I asked her when she knew she was done with her debut novel, Homegoing. She thought for a moment before saying that, more than anything, “it was about feeling ready to let it go.” Then she added that she didn’t anticipate how sad it would be to be done with a book. “It felt kind of like I was missing a limb.”
Try this: Imagine submitting your manuscript. How does that make you feel? If you’re not sad, maybe that means you haven’t completely invested in it. Maybe you haven’t lived with it long enough. Maybe you don’t really know it at all.
Q: Revise until sad? That’s your answer?
A: I don’t know: That’s my answer.
Look, to write fiction, you have to get comfortable with ambiguity. Uncertainty. Doubt and mystery. You work from a place of not-knowing. This is true not only within the story but about the story itself. Whether you’ve let it rest for three months or three years, whether the thought of sending it out into the world fills you with sadness or relief or excitement, you won’t know whether you’re done or not. Not really. And if you want to last in this business, you’ll have to come to terms with that.
So, no, I can’t give you a straightforward answer. But that’s not the same thing as telling you to stop asking this question, or any other question. Ask away; just know that you’ll never finish looking for answers.