When you’ve been working on a major writing project — one that’s consumed significant amounts of time and energy — it’s very easy to shift into overdrive and begin overwriting. I know, because there have been several times during the revision of my children’s novel where I’ve come perilously close to doing this and a few instances where I stepped over the line. So how do you know when you’re really done with what seems to be a final revision?
While I’m not quite there yet, I’m getting very close. So here are a few thoughts I’d like to pass on about knowing when to enough is enough:
STOP before your plot gets too unwieldy: I started my novel with a handful of characters and an inciting incident and basically wrote my way into a plot. Once I wrote my first draft, I realized that my plot was jerry-built. While it worked well in some places, it was cumbersome in others. In this latest revision, I’ve created a much stronger story arc. But as I wrapped up this latest round of changes, I began to tinker with a plot again — adding a twist here, and a twist there. While some of these worked, I recently realized that I was in danger of overcomplicating my story. So I stopped.
STOP before you create too many characters: As your story deepens and becomes richer, the temptation to add characters can be almost overwhelming. But if you give in to it, you can end up writing a new version of War and Peace, with so many characters and subplots that most of your readers won’t be able or even interested in keeping them all straight. Better to put your energy into building up your main characters than letting your bit players grow like Topsy.
STOP before your theme is muddied or lost: If you write past the point when you should have stopped, you run the danger of obscuring or even losing the “big picture” — the overarching theme(s) of the story you set out to tell. I think this happens most often when we lose confidence in our original vision or simply lose sight of it because we’ve written past it because we’re in overdrive and can’t stop ourselves from wanting to make sure that everyone will absolutely know what we were trying to say. So instead of letting our story tell our story, we try to tell it — and can’t see the forest for the trees.
STOP before your tinkering damages instead of improves: This is a tough tendency to put the brakes on, because it’s so tempting. Believe me, I know the feeling! But after years of writing, I’ve learned to recognize when my puttering around is making things worse instead of better. When I see this happening, I force myself to stop because I know that the end result is going to be that I’ll waste a lot of time going back and restoring things that were actually better than what I ended up with because I couldn’t stop fussing. Avoid this! You are not helping yourself — or your story.
I hope some of this hard-won experiences proves helpful. If you have any warning signs that you’ve learned to heed on the road to wrapping up, I’d love to have you share them. Write on!