—(A version of this article originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)
Most writers wrestle with revising their work. Having labored long and hard to birth their creative offspring, the thought of pruning, paring, and ruthlessly trimming understandably brings with it reluctance, if not outright resistance. We recently posted some helpful advice on how to learn to embrace the process which you can read here if you missed it. Having dutifully stepped up to the task though, how do you keep from getting waylaid in uncertainty, endless revisions and diminishing returns?
BookWorks founder and veteran editor, Betty Kelly Sargent, offers some sage tips for just such a quandary posed by a reader.
I keep revising and re-revising my manuscript. How can I tell when it’s time to let go?
Lots of authors have this problem. I worked with a writer once who spent over a year and a half revising a draft of her manuscript. I finally said, “Please send what you have to me by Friday or we are going to have to cancel your contract.” She did. It was no better than the draft I had seen a year and a half before. In fact, it had lost some of its energy and freshness.
The moral of this story: Let it go before it (your publisher if you have one) lets go of you.
Better or Just Different?
“There’s a point at which you’re not making it better; you’re just making it different. You have to be good at recognizing that point,” says Salman Rushdie.
How do you get good at this? First, you trust your instincts. Read the draft through carefully, and be kind to yourself. Unless something leaps out at you as inaccurate, intrusive, or just plain ridiculous, leave it alone. Then ask for a reading from a couple of friends whose judgment you respect. Consider hiring a professional freelance editor if you don’t already have one, and if you do, follow her advice. If she thinks it’s ready for prime time, (whether you're querying agents or preparing to self-publish) then it probably is.
One more thing. If your manuscript is nonfiction, and you are seeking to go the traditional publishing route, you don’t have to write the entire book. A proposal would do fine and is often preferable. A proposal includes: Overview, Target Audience, Author Bio, Marketing Plan, Comparable (Comp) Titles, Chapter Outline (annotated) and Sample Chapters. Focus on why your reader needs this book. Then write your two chapters, put it all together and let it go.
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