Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 25, 2022

When Is Your Story Done?

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

When have you arrived at the end of your story - exhibited by words on a typewriter.

How can you tell when it’s time to stop editing your work and start sending it out?

We’ve all been through that question. Sometimes every few days, sometimes every few books. But for just about any writer, there are times when it’s hard to know WHEN the work is ready to go.

It doesn’t matter whether this is your first manuscript or your fifty-first. It doesn’t matter whether the recipient is your first mentor or the agent of your dreams. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a contest entry, a novella, a full-length novel or a trilogy. At some point you have to decide:

Yep, this is ready to send.

And yet it’s so tempting to keep working. To keep tweaking that final scene. To keep revising the first-encounter dialogue. To keep switching the ellipses to dashes and back again. Revision can be downright addictive.

There are times, of course, when it’s absolutely necessary. After all, most addictive things DO start out fine. Nobody can argue that a celebratory brownie is a Bad Idea. But seven brownies for breakfast...not so good.

So how can you tell the difference between revisions that are making the work better and revisions that are a waste of time?

Let's face it, sometimes declaring "all done" is a really tough decision. How do you know another pass won't make it better? Even just a tiny bit better?

And what if that tiny bit makes all the difference?

It's funny that we don't usually go through that kind of angst when it comes to other "yep, I'm finished" decisions. Getting dressed in the morning, for instance -- might those other shoes be better? Or, wait, what about this pair? And now that I look at it, this shirt might not be the best choice. Or should I adjust the collar? No, wait, these shoes still aren't right...

We've all been through that, before some really important event where it's absolutely crucial to look our best. Say, for instance, the high school prom. 🙂

Even those of us who only went with the nerdy brother of our sister's date -- um, yes, in fact, that WOULD be me -- still remember the quest to look Totally Perfect.

But now, however-many years later, I look back on those weeks of getting ready for the prom and marvel at how much emotional energy I devoted to what was essentially a non-issue. I remember what I wore, sure, but not whether the selected shoes turned out to be the Very Best Choice or a Sad Second Best.

And you can tell where this is heading, right?

Someday you'll look back on the work you're reluctant to send, and marvel at what a big deal it seemed like at the time.

Because the thing is, fixing that one pesky phrase or one comma or one description or even one entire scene isn't going to make the difference as to whether or not the recipient is thrilled with your work.

The overall book will make a difference, sure.

But how many revision passes can you DO on a book?

Four?

Fourteen?

Forty-eight?

Four hundred?

At some point, revision becomes an excuse to avoid moving forward.

How do you know when you're there?

A couple possibilities are when you discover that you're:

  • Shifting things back and forth rather than making a change
  • Wondering why you ever liked this story in the first place
  • Unable to envision when this will be ready to send

If that happens, how do you get around it?

Well, maybe you don't NEED to get around it. Maybe you're just flat-out not ready to send this material, but you haven't actually acknowledged that. If somebody's pressuring you to get that work out into the world, but you don't want to take such a step, it might seem easier to just keep revising than to declare "I don't want to send this yet."

But if you think it over and decide that yes, by golly, you DO want to send this -- and that decision is coming from YOU and nobody else -- then what do you do?

Tell yourself "this work is the best I'm capable of at this point in my life. Sure, a few years from now I'll probably be even more skilled, but at this time I've done the very best job I can do." And after that:

Give yourself a deadline.

Be specific: "This has to go out by September 16 [or whatever date seems reasonable], no matter what."

Then see what happens. If you make the deadline, even if it's a day or two late, you're all set. If not, figure you're just not ready -- whether or not you've officially acknowledged that -- and turn your attention to some other project. You can still keep writing without submitting, even if you've shoved this particular book under the bed.

But it's more likely that answering the questions above and giving yourself a deadline will do the trick in terms of deciding when you're finished with revisions.

Now, before you’re finished with revisions...

What do you need to address? There are 11 things to consider, some of which you’ve already handled beautifully because they’re your natural strong points and others of which might need some work.

Those are what we’ll talk about in “Revision Hel--No, Heaven” next month, and if at least 25 people answer the question below, one of ‘em will win the drawing for free registration to this class.

Which leads to our:

Prize-Drawing Question

What’s a revision item you always pay attention to? Something you know, right from the start, that will need to be addressed. Please share it down in the comments!

Note: It’s okay if your answer repeats what someone else has already said. It’s okay if your answer is something no one else has mentioned. We each need our own toolbox, and it’s always fascinating to see what various writers keep in theirs!

* * * * * *

About Laurie

After winning Romantic Times' "Best Special Edition of the Year" over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing and revising...if not more. Since then she's taught online and live workshops on craft topics, like next month’s two-week email class, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who've developed that particular book in her classes. With 52 titles there so far, she's always hoping for more.

Leave a Reply

87 comments on “When Is Your Story Done?”

  1. Hi Laurie. Revisions are such a pain and yet so important. But as you said knowing when to stop is critical. Thanks for your insights on the topic. Cheers, Adite

  2. A revision item I always pay attention to: WORD ECHO. I seem to get hooked on a word and without realizing it, that same word appears over and over in close proximity. I have to go back, find them, and select something else or eliminate the word all together. It sounds so obvious when I find them!

  3. The one revision item I like to double check is that all of my characters have one name and one set of characteristics especially if I made a conscious choice to change something about a character during the writing process. I also found that it was time to send it out when I was tired of the story because that meant I was just fiddling with it.

  4. I'm an 'edit as you go' writer, and I'll flag things along the way to save for the 'big edit' after the draft is finished (which is where I am now on the WIP). I look for unnecessary threads, characters not pulling their weight as the biggies. Then it's tightening. Getting rid of clunkers, overused words and phrases (SmartEdit is very helpful there), and of course the typos, etc. Having a due date to send it to my editor helps too! Eventually, changes aren't making things better, only different.

    1. Terry, you can sure save a lot of angst by editing as you go -- that's like what they used to tell us in cooking class. "Cleaning up as you go" makes the whole process a lot easier (although I could never convince my husband of that)!

  5. This is such a helpful blog, because I am a perfectionist, which can make revising seem impossible. I always try to read out loud. If it sounds good grammar and readability wise, even if some things may not seem perfect, I know I'm in a good spot. Especially checking if I repeated anything too close.

  6. Something I know I'll need to address throughout my book before it's actually "done" is to make sure I don't repeat certain actions that identify who's speaking when I'm deleting "s/he said" from the manuscript, like "Mark nodded.. or smiled...or laughed", etc. I don't like to have hundreds of "s/he said" throughout the book. It's boring. So I try to interject actions on the character's part to make the story more like a film the reader is watching.

  7. Hi Laurie. I find myself smack dab in the middle of this right now. Just decided it was time and sent a novel off to a beta reader to stop myself from more pointless noodling. Because I write MF two POV romance one thing I'm constantly fretting over is the hero's voice. Writing from the male point of view doesn't come naturally to me, and I always worry I've completely missed the boat. It's also one of those things I need to have someone else's eyes on to fix, so sending it out sooner might make my editing life easier, but why make this easy? Thanks for this blog. It hit my inbox just when I needed it.

    1. I grew up with brothers, so writing male POV comes naturally to me. For those not so lucky, may I suggest a research visit. Stop by your local hardware store, ball park, bowling alley, etc. and listen in on male conversations. Men and women think and speak differently. Women tend to congregate, nest, and use conversation to strengthen relationships and bond. Men tend to use conversation for a purpose...to impart or obtain information. They also tend not to open up as easily as women. So, if your hero suffered some horrific past trauma, he'll likely brush it off as a 'stuff happens' kind of thing. The only way he'll share it is when he has his back to the wall and must face the trauma (or reveal it) because revealing it is the lesser of two evils. Or else use the revelation as a way to push the heroine away for good. Guys also tend not to notice specific details like designer brands (purse, shoes, clothes, etc). He'd more likely refer to the heroine's "large, bottomless brown tote", "black heels" (or stilettos), or "loose, flowing silk number". These are, of course, generalizations, but you get the idea. 🙂

  8. I tend to look for descriptions at this point: have I at least sketched in a setting, or are my characters interacting on an empty stage? Did that chair exist before the character sat down? (It didn't have to, but...) Am I repeating words or phrases? (Was I writing this scene while I was exhausted?) And then after that, the question becomes Am I introducing these things in a way that makes sense?

    But honestly, the other thing I try to look at when I'm revising is this: am I still moving the story forward, or is the constant stream of revisions holding it back? I tend to revise as I go, and it's very possible to revise myself into a corner, or into a downward spiral.

  9. Inevitably, I find repeated words that are apparently my favorites. I've also fallen prey to the "green eyes" on page 2 and "blue eyes" on page 32 syndrome. I also look for plot holes and have found several (shudder). The key is to turn loose of the story before you begin hate it. 🙂

    1. Ann, I love "turn loose of the story before you hate it" -- by that point, it'd probably be hard to even NOTICE the changing eye color, whereas a fresh reader can point it out and it's an easy fix. 🙂

  10. I have an internal nag who will not shut up until it gets it way. Usually, it’s about a scene that isn’t working. This nag doesn’t always tell me what I need to do, so I’ve revised scenes thinking it’s better, and then I hear it again: that’s not how that character would react or do you really want that scene there? So I ponder, revise yet again, and then—poof— no more nag. Until the next time.

  11. The big question is reviewing for plot holes or the story being 'too predictable' especially with a mystery. Then does the story provide the reader 'experience' to get them engage. Revisiting the big picture even after the small edits. Is the story smooth sailing or am I just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic?

  12. Hi, Laurie, Great topic. I'm a re-cycler. I revise the scene I wrote yesterday to get me started for today. Then when I've typed THE END I wait however I can tolerate waiting, then I do a slow one-pass revision. I love doing this part. Revision is where the story finally comes together. Often that revision ends up being a bit of a re-cycling pass, too. Sometimes after I finish my one-pass, my Spidey senses tell me the book's not ready, that some scene or interaction is wrong. Then I might do a targeted revision of one section or even one scene. It sounds fast when I write it down but it's not.

  13. Hi Laurie. The revision item that grabs my attention is POV. I try so hard not to head hop but fall into it now and again.

    I am so glad I didn't rush this particular problem child to publication. A new critique group is reading the chapters and finding things that others missed.

    Once I get past the little slipups, this one should be ready to go.

    Sending our book-babies out into the world is simultaneously exciting and scary.

  14. Oh this article is so spot on. We get so invested in our characters and their stories that I wonder if we just hold on a little tootling at times in hopes of protecting our little worlds. Then the I just need to tighten this chapter and oh let me cut that unnecessary character then it’s oh crap now it’s too short and well then there’s the whole perfectionism trap. Oh and friends wanting to help by being beta readers and not being able to point out anything wrong with it. Sadly I haven’t yet overcome any of this and I could list a million more issues so…un yeah. I enjoy reading these articles for advice and to know I’m sadly not alone with similar issues when it comes to writing. ~Margie

    1. Margie, you are ABSOLUTELY not alone! Anytime I do this class, people are always amazed at how many of the same things we all go through -- everyone has their own issues, but they're repeated in writer after writer after writer after writer after writer...

  15. I can really relate to this post. I probably took an extra year revising and revising my paranormal romance before I said enough and sent it out. It was picked up by a publisher right away and I'm currently awaiting my editor's first round of edits (see? Even though I fiddled till my fingers bled, there will be MORE edits). But, what I always know I need to pay attention to is pacing. Gets me every time.

  16. I revise as I go along, so for each chapter I have 4 things in mind when I revise it--I check for when my characters do something without clear motivation, check for places where I’ve made it difficult for the reader to identify with my character (places where it’s maybe too hard to sympathise with them) check for places where I can add more emotion (because I write romances) and then finally look for any awkward sentence structure.

  17. Hello: I always make sure that my transitions are smooth and, in fact, there. It is vital to give your protagonist to get from one place to the next. One scene to another. One sequel to another. Otherwise, the reader will lose interest and put the book down.

  18. Depth. My revisions always focus on adding emotional reaction to the action on the page. Also, setting description. I like to think both of these things have improved over the years, but they're the #1 factors I have to address on my major revision pass!

  19. Laurie, sometimes you just have to push the baby out of the nest to fend for itself. If you're lucky, it will take flight.
    Paula

  20. One thing that must be addressed is whether the protagonist's internal and external motivations have been clearly stated and satisfied either by getting what she/he wanted or realizing what they wanted wasn't what they needed.

  21. I stop when I find myself changing a word and then changing it back to the original or when my deadline dictates I'm done. LOL!

    One of the things I always have to look for are word echoes. I find a wonderful word that describes something perfectly and before I know it, I've used it half a dozen times. 🙂

  22. Deadlines are key for me. Even then, it's when I receive that settling in my spirit, an "ahhhhh," that I am confident I'm ready to release my "baby." Oh, sure, it could still be improved upon, but I believe that goes with any type of [creative] work. For example, my husband said that in his job of coding, he could always go back and improve upon the code. I think this signifies continued growth in our skillset. In Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way," I love how she says it: My job is quantity; God's job is quality. If I adopt this mindset, then I simply must keep plugging away and the work will speak to whoever it's meant to reach. Thank you for this post, Laurie! ~ Chris

    1. What a great quote! *LOL* I need to keep that in mind too. 'My job is quantity...and God's is quality.' I'm going to post that somewhere nearby.

    2. Chris, I'm right there with Fran in loving your quality / quantity quote! Kind of brings to mind Nora Roberts' "I can fix anything except a blank page" -- although, come to think of it, God could probably fix even that. 🙂

  23. Hi Laurie (waves madly from Nova Scotia),
    My go-to, never missed revision tool is a list of "weasel" words, i.e. that, just, back, thought, etc., that I expunge, or at least reduce in number. Doing so inevitably reveals weak writing which I can tweak to make stronger. I also read my story aloud - guaranteed to reveal awkward sentences.
    Cheers,
    Luanna

  24. A revision item I always look for in my writing are "ly" words. I also tend to write in a "formal passive" way, which makes me alert and question why I ever liked my story. I have to remind myself that the "formal passive" I like to do should be used judiciously (see, another ly word) rather than for all my writing. For instance, the beginning of one of my stories begins, "As the Captain would say, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Though why anyone wanted to do so was never explained, Nellie understood the gist of the localism, just as she now understood her father had handed her a dead cat." It's not the type of active voice that's encouraged at all costs, but I think it does fit the tone of the book (historical romance) and also shows us the character of Nellie. But not every sentence needs to be like this...and I tend to write more formal passive than I should. Also I like to keep an eye out to make sure I didn't change anyone's names mid-story.

    1. Fran, I'm getting a kick out of the contrast between your philosophical and practical things to check -- you're right on target with both of 'em; they're just so different from each other! Which I'm betting gives you a VERY good balance.

  25. I watch for overuse of character traits ... infectious grin, head tilt, glare/glower. Any of these can paint a more complete picture for your reader, but too many or too often isn't always a good thing. I mean, a hero might rake his hands through his hair when tired or frustrated, but if he does it several times a chapter, it loses its potency. Same for the heroine who heaves multiple exasperated sighs at the hero. That begs the question, if he's that exasperating, why does she want him? 🙂

  26. Hi Laurie! When I do revisions, I'm constantly looking to see if I've left the right breadcrumbs in the right places. Those curiosity seeds that are going to make the reader invested and want to keep turning pages and that will connect to crucial points later on. I'll also try writing a few scenes in another POV/tense to determine what sounds the best for that particular story. And, of course, I need to make sure I've dealt with all the little love notes I've left myself like, "FIX THIS" or "What were you thinking? This needs work!" and "NEED MORE HERE." lol

    Great insights here. I'd also like to add that while you have to take feedback with a grain of salt and use only what resonates with you, look for patterns in the feedback. Revise the areas that more than one person is picking up on, and when you're getting comments back like "wow, why isn't this published yet?" and "I really love the way you've woven in xyc throughout the story, and in [these specific areas]" and no longer getting "I love [this element] but I really think [this element] could use some work. Have you thought about doing [this thing] instead?" then you know it's looking promising. When you have trusted betas and critique partners and/or an editor that are giving you excellent feedback after you've made revisions, that's a sign that it's probably ready to go.

    And as I say with anything in life, always trust your instincts! They're there for a reason. Be careful not to confuse it with impatience or excitement, and make wise, thoughtful decisions, but listen to what your gut is telling you about sending it out. 🙂

    1. Jackie, timelines can be a real bear -- especially when we're so engrossed in a scene that it takes us five hours to write a conversation that only takes five minutes but we feel like of course the sun will have gone down by the time they finish. 🙂

  27. Hi Laurie! My biggest revision monster is using my editing software to discover my repetitious character movements as well as word echoes. I sometimes overdo the character "quirks" and they can be doing the same thing (quirked left eyebrow, anyone?) over and over and I have to go back and rewrite them. And then there's the same word(s) used from paragraph to paragraph...sigh...otoh, it's the sign that one's been on a roll and the thoughts were pouring out, so there's that!

  28. I pay attention to three things:

    1. Reading the entire book out loud (which always catches WAY more than I think it will)

    2. Running searches for was, reach, felt, start, began, smile, grin and eyebrow

    3. Running a follow up search for quotation marks so I can see where I missed one or used the wrong kind

    And it ALWAYS takes three times as long as I think it will.

    1. Jenny, I had to laugh at your three-times-as-long estimate...I suspect you're right way more often than any of us can really stand to believe. On the other hand, maybe it's better than thinking "Revisions will take me eight months" and getting them done in two days...

  29. I have two things I have to watch for. The second draft must include hunting down my favorite (read: overused) words and thinning them out. I try to do this in the first draft, but all it's never good enough. So far, my final draft is snipping out weasel words and passive phrases. Then it's ready for a beta reader, so some further changes might happen, but I consider it the best I can do at that stage.

  30. Hey, Laurie! Great post! I always try to make sure the logic and content flow well, without overdoing details, but making sure there's enough detail. 😀

  31. Thanks to everybody who shared their thoughts today! Just got home from prayer group and I'm heading straight to bed, but tomorrow I'll count up the number of commenters to feed into random-dot-org and see which numbered person wins free registration to next month's Revision Hel--No, Heaven class!

  32. Hi Laurie, enjoyed this so much, that I read through it twice. Seems I haven't a clue. I've been away from writing for too long. For each story attempt (for that's what mine are) and never getting to the end, I start out writing a plausible ending. Sometimes, two endings. It's connecting the stuff in between that always trips me up. Maybe learning how to compose a workable synopsis will kick-start me into finishing something. I'm hopeful. In any case, it will be an enjoyable hour with my favorite teacher. My ears and eyes are ready to learn!

  33. Hi Laurie, The part about moving things, then moving them back resonated. I'm always trying to see if the whole story and the individual stories all had their own arc's, and if the arcs within arcs added or subtracted from the whole. Looking for those awkward phrases that sounded so clever the first time, or where the story-line got flabby in the middle. The continuity is imporant too (e.g. where was the handbag, where is it now). There are just layers and layers to unpick. So your point is a good one. It's hard to know when to stop.

    1. "Layers and layers to unpick" is such a great phrase...and way too true. From those little details to the broader ones like arcs within arcs, it's no wonder revision can sometimes seem harder than writing the book in the first place!

  34. It’s always such fun reading about various writers’ revision tools – thanks to everybody who posted!

    With 32 people commenting, I fed that number into random-dot-org and it came up with #20, which is Donna Wichelman…congratulations, Donna, and let me know (my email’s at BookLaurie.com/info-contact/ ) where to send your groups.io class invitation.

    Also, if anybody wants any help with a synopsis, I’m doing a free workshop on that Saturday morning (9-10am Pacific, 12-1pm Eastern) so just email me for the Zoom link!

    Laurie, with one last THANKS to Jenny and the WITS gang for being such great organizers 🙂

  35. Fantastic reminder, well timed for me, Laurie, as I'm trying to decide if I'm done with a contest entry or not! Something I always have to pay attention to is the number of -ly words!

  36. I know I'm going to find many words I can cut. Words that sound good, but aren't necessary to move forward. I generally cut about 25% out of a first draft. (I just did that here.) I talk so much at first because I don't trust my readers to catch on. I look for alliteration too, and other clunkinesses.

    1. Meg, I love your observations about "Words that sound good, but aren't necessary to move forward" and "I talk so much at first because I don't trust my readers to catch on" -- both VERY easy things to fall into!

    1. Laura, "relentlessly" is such a great word for describing those frequent repeats -- it's like we get blinded too them by over-familiarity, same as how we never notice a kid growing bigger unless we only see 'em once or twice a year. Go figure. 🙂

  37. Revision element I always know I'll need to deal with: the emotional reactions of the characters. Make sure they react, not just externally but also internally, when things happen to them.

  38. Thank you for this Laurie! This is exactly where I am at and precisely what I needed to hear. Shifting things back and forth - yep. Concluding that I don't even like the story now - yep. Can't imagine pressing that send button - yep!! Reading your post has told me loud and clear that it's time to let go 🙂

  39. I just discovered your blog and I have found this article so helpful. I am beginning to look at expanding my writing from a monthly Christian news paper to a broader audience. I am subscribed and anxiously going through the blog.

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