How Much Editing Is Too Much?
That may sound like a trick question. There's no such thing, right? A polished book is always going to be better than a rough, rushed book, isn't it? But there's a lot of interesting nuance to the question that's worth diving into.
Over-editing is a symptom of a more insidious disease, not the disease itself. And yes, if you're an author who values getting your work out into the world, it's very much a disease.
So, Dr. Bloom, what is the diagnosis? Perfectionism.
If you ever want to release your first book, or if you don't want your existing career to grind to a halt, that word should terrify you. It should dredge up images of wood effigies in forests and the sound of nails on a chalkboard.
Perfectionism will kill your book more surely than anything else. It'll do more harm to your book than bad writing or a horrible cover. Perfectionism as a disease for writers takes many forms and has many symptoms. Writer's block, a compulsion to endlessly bounce between half-finished projects, creating new pen names all the time, and, of course, over-editing.
Imagine this. You're a pole vaulter, and you are standing in front of the bar with your pole in hand. The moment you walk up, you can see the bar is relatively low, and you feel pretty confident you can make the jump. All you'd need to do is give it a shot, and you'd be done. But what if you asked them to move it up a smidge? Wouldn't that be more satisfying? Wouldn't it be so fun to watch the crowd's eyes go wide as you did something they didn't think was possible? So you bump it up, then you bump it up some more. And at some point you step back to look at the task ahead of you. The bar is now so high that you are fairly sure it would be a world record if you managed to get your scrawny self over it. But hey, maybe all you need is a big goal like that to motivate yourself. So you start doing air squats, lunges, and anything else you can think of. Every once in a while, you look over your shoulder at the towering bar and realize you're still nowhere near it. You'll eventually make one of four choices: You'll walk away because you only need to look at the bar to know you stand no chance of overcoming it. You'll kid yourself for the rest of your life into thinking you'll train hard enough some day to overcome that bar. You might even get frustrated with the training and just try the jump to see, but feel terrible when you fall laughably short of your goal. Or... Or you will realize you set an impossible goal and lower the bar. That's really what happens with so many authors (myself included) and our books. If we're not careful, we can all start pushing that bar up and up and up without even realizing we've done it. It'll just hit you some day when you realize you're agonizing over whether a sentence reads better as... "She opened the door slowly." Or, "Slowly, she opened the door." Sure, one of them may flow better for readers, but neither choice is going to make or break your book. If we weren't setting the bar too high, we'd cruise right past that choice and make our best decision in the moment then let it go. But once perfectionism takes hold, that simple, unimportant choice can eat up an entire day of your productivity. You'll hit that moment or a thousand others like it and your work will grind to a halt. You'll stare at it, decide you don't really know. But one thing you do know is you can't move on. You've got to figure it out, so you give up for a while and do something else, knowing you'll come back to it. I could give endless examples, but I think everyone probably gets the point by now. The pressing question becomes what do you do about it? What do you do when you catch yourself over-editing? For me, it's never a "snap my fingers and its fixed" kind of problem, but there is a first step. The first step is realizing that I've somehow slid into that morass of perfectionism again. I'm aiming too high and hoping too hard. I've convinced myself that for whatever reason it is this time, my next book needs to be perfect. It has to accomplish some goal so lofty that the only way I can imagine it happening is if I maximize the potential of every single sentence in the thing. Once you realize you're being a perfectionist, the next step is a lot like overcoming a phobia of spiders. Exposure is the key. You've got to expose yourself to letting go. If you have to, make yourself a deal. "I'll let go of this sentence and come back to it when I edit. But for now, I'm letting go." That may seem like it's a dangerous proposition for an over-editor, but one of the biggest problems with over-editing is that it tends to stop the book from actually getting finished. People start editing live as they're writing and it grinds the writing process to a halt. So tell yourself you'll get it later. What you'll find is that most of the time, that thing you thought was cringey or horribly awkward doesn't even register as a problem when you re-read. You'll have the same experience your readers do because that point of opening the door slowly or slowly opening the door is just moving the character through a story. It's incidental, and your brain will realize in the flow of reading the story that as long as it's not so poorly done that it drags the reader out of the story, it's fine. That's right, it's okay if your sentences aren't perfect.
It's okay if you don't always choose the right word. It's okay if entire chapters could've been done better or maybe should've included this detail or tease you think about later. Stories are resilient. If you tell a good story, it will survive your mistakes. It'll creep through every slightly awkward sentence and poor word choice. It'll exist in those moments you do nail. The perfect line of dialogue here or the interaction that rings so true it endears a character to the reader. Everything else will fade into background noise, and the last step to overcoming your perfectionism is to remember that. So my final word of advice is to accept that perfectionism probably will creep into your mind at some point. In fact, it'll probably come back to you again and again. Just accept it as a symptom of a disease of its own. The disease of caring about your work and wanting it to resonate with people. And most importantly, remember that there's no such thing as the perfect story. Every story we tell lives in this impossibly tangled web of our current abilities, our current likes and interest, and the current events surrounding us. Writing a great story is sometimes just the art of persisting as all those elements continue to shift, change, and sometimes evolve. But the only way to reach that point is to be willing to let go of your perfectionism, even if it's just enough to get the book out the door.