Editing – how long should it take? Frequent Questions

Q: How much time should I spend on editing something?
A: Don’t obsess. Imperfectly finished beats perfectly unfinished every time.

Yes, edit. But make sure that editing doesn’t become a form of procrastination. Because at some point, you’re going to have to “ship,” as Seth Godin says.

editing your work is essential; don't keep it locked in a drawerDo you? If you’re writing for your own pleasure, fine—keep it locked up in a drawer for the guy at the used furniture store to find, if you want. You’ll acquire a posthumous reputation. You and Emily Dickinson can swap stories about writing over tea in the Great Hereafter.

Sharing: That’s part of the editing process too

But if you’re writing to move people, you have to let people read it. Start small. No—not with your family. Start with people whose opinions you value, whose writing you respect. Join a writing group—in-person or online. Take a writing class. Find an environment where you feel safe and share your work. You don’t have to take their reactions as gospel, but they’ll give you a good idea of where you stand. And they might even like your work more than you do. When they compliment you, don’t swat it away with, “I can do better.” Say two words: “Thank you.” And then shut up and let the compliments sink in. Because you’ve earned them.

You’ve probably also earned some criticism. And that’s okay too; it’s just part of the circle of writing life.

Learn to hear and accept constructive criticism. And yes, I know that’s always easier to type than it is to do. Writing for clients makes it remarkably easy for me to accept comments and edits. Because I’m very clear that it’s their work, not mine. And that’s bled over into my own writing as well. Mostly I’m able to hear comments as helpful suggestions, not as thinly veiled hints that I’m the worst writer in the world.

But the question we started with was how long should a writer spend on editing.

I love deadlines—and I’ve never missed one in my professional life—because they give me an excuse to stop. If you don’t have a client imposing a deadline, can you impose one on yourself? My friend Joan Garry just finished writing her first book. She says:

“I set my own deadline to get the manuscript to the publisher that was in advance of when it was actually due, so that if I blew the deadline I blew my own deadline. I didn’t blow the publisher’s deadline.”

If that doesn’t work for you, then try setting a time limit. If you spend an hour editing your one-pager and you still aren’t happy with it, step away from the computer and go for a walk. Put it away overnight. Think about other things, things that have nothing to do with writing.

Here’s another question for you:

Q: What is Beethoven doing right now?
A: Decomposing.

Sometimes when we fuss over a piece of copy like it’s the Thanksgiving chicken, we take something pretty good and turn it, word by precious word, into crap. (That’s a technical term there.)

Sometimes you need someone to gently remove the pen from your hand, or lovingly pry your fingers from the keyboard and say, “Let it rest.”

Now, I admit that when it’s my work—when I have to prepare a bio for a pitch or give a speech—yes, you will sometimes find me up at three in the morning, searching for that just-right word. I have been known to rehearse a speech so hard that I barely have any voice left with which to give it.

Which is to say: I know both sides of this editing thing. My advice comes from hard-won experience. So I hope you’ll take it; I’ll certainly try to.

The most important thing is to write.

The second most important is to accept that your writing will hardly ever be perfect.

The third most important thing is to know that, and let people read it anyway.

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