When to Stop Polishing a Manuscript

Many new writers don’t know when to stop polishing a manuscript and move on to the next. Part of the reason for that might have to do with Ernest Hemingway.

Many years ago, a writer asked Hemingway, “How many times should I rewrite a manuscript?” Now, Hemingway hated dumb questions, so he answered “Oh, at least 60.”

He loved doing that to writers. On one occasion, a writer asked him what kind of chair he preferred to sit in, as if perhaps the brand of furniture that an author had planted his butt on might somehow confer literary genius. Hemingway answered, “I don’t sit when I write, I stand.” And a generation or writers began to write standing up. The problem with that is that you can go to any one of Hemingway’s old homes or offices, and see the chairs that he sat on.

On another occasion, a writer asked him how long she should wait between drafts when revising, so that she would be able to look at her story “cold.” He suggested that it should be two years.

Think about it. If Hemingway did sixty drafts of a novel and waited two years between each draft, he would have never finished a single book. Don’t listen to bad advice, even when it comes from a genius.

Back when I first began writing, I used an old typewriter. I didn’t like it. I had to really bang the keys hard, it was noisy, certain keys didn’t work well, and the type was uneven. Because of this, doing rewrites was difficult. I’d type out a draft, make extensive corrections on the page with a pencil, and then try to type out a perfectly clean copy.

Using that system, it would have been foolish to repeat the process sixty times. Because of this, in the 1920s and 30s, a professional writer would typically try to learn to write finished copy in a single draft. It was simpler to write out a nice outline in longhand, and then thoughtfully type out one clean draft, than to retype a piece over and over.

The first electric typewriter was invented in the early 1900s, but they didn’t begin to become in wide use until the 1930s, and really took off in about 1960 with the IBM Selectric. These models made rewriting much easier, and authors began to revise more.

Of course with the development of computers, revising became quite easy. My first computer would allow me to put only 2 pages of text on a disk, but by the late 1980s I was able to get first a whole chapter, and then with the addition of a hard drive, an entire novel in a single file. It wasn’t until then that rewriting became so easy that it became problematic.

You see, as an editor I’m looking for stories that have some originality, that carry an author’s own voice, his odd quirks. But when a new writer begins showing a manuscript around to members of her workshop and polishing it further and further, eventually the author tends to lose her own distinct voice. The result is, that the story can become less interesting to me as an editor with every draft.

So the question is, how many revisions does a novel or short story really need?

That’s a personal question. Each published author might develop his or her own standards. I typically go through a novel three times before sending it to my editor, though key scenes might get another polish or even three.

As I rewrite, I try to avoid changing both the voices of my characters and my own narrative voice. Rather than polishing away the differences between voices, I think it’s better to look for ways to heighten the unique characters in the tale.

In fact, on one of my last rewrites, I do what I call a “voice edit,” where I go through key characters person by person to make sure that their voices are consistent.

I almost never look at a scene more than five or six times. Yet I know some writers who will polish a scene 20 times or more, making it a little less interesting each time. Don’t do that.

Why? You’ve got other books to write! By the time that you’ve revised a novel half a dozen times, you’re probably not really making it any better.

So when you feel good about it, submit it to editors.

Now, when many writers get a rejection letter, they’ll begin to feel insecure about a tale. Don’t let that happen. The world is full of great novels that were rejected over and over again. Harry Potter went to all of the world’s biggest publishers before it finally found a home. Dune was rejected dozens of times, as were dozens of other great novels.

The proper response to a rejection is to send the story out to a different publisher—not to rewrite the tale.

So don’t fiddle with your language. There are times when it might be wise to make a “substantial” revision, one where you change the very bones of a story. For example, you might decide to write a new opening scene, or extend a climax, or something like that. In that case, it’s like re-setting the bones of the story, not applying new lipstick to the face of it. You’re fixing the underlying structure.

For example, years ago I was walking down a hallway at a convention, and I heard an editor talking to a young writer. He was describing the problem with the author’s story, and he said, “You know what that story needs? It needs something big, a world exploding or something right in the opening.”

Now, it so happened that I had written a little short story about a terrorist called “The Sky is an Open Highway.” It wasn’t much of a story, but it did have a world exploding in it. In fact, that very editor had rejected it a few months earlier.

So I added a new scene where a world explodes on page 1, and then sent it to that editor.  I was rewarded with a contract a couple of weeks later.

Now, that new scene was a “substantial edit.” It changed the nature of the story, signaling to the reader exactly what the story was about. But I didn’t polish the rest of the tale. I already knew that it was good enough.

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