How to Know You’re Finally Finished Rewriting: When Is Enough Revision Enough?

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What’s handier—or more frustrating—than how easily we can rewrite?

In the old days when we used typewriters, every change meant erasing or whiting out words or starting an entirely fresh page.

These days we can recast any word, any sentence, any paragraph with an almost unconscious series of mouse clicks and keystrokes.

On the one hand, I love it!

On the other, I find it maddening.  

I mean, how is it that we can rewrite the same sentence five times, let it sit for a few days—or weeks—and find five more ways to write it?

When is enough enough? How do you know when a sentence is the best it can be?

It reminds me of when I was a kid and my mother asked me to clear the table. The final task was wiping down the surface to remove any food scraps.

Mom says that most of the time I did more rearranging than cleaning.

That’s how revising can seem. You start to wonder whether you’ve improved it or have just rearranged the mess.

Believe it or not, there are two ways of knowing when you’re done—when revising more would make it only different and not better.  

1—Trust your gut.

Knowing what sounds right, what reads best, is what being a writer means. You should be writing for yourself and believing there are myriad others out there just like you. When it reads the way that feels right to you, stop. You’re there.

2—Read it aloud.

When you hear it, everything becomes clear—whether you’re reading it to yourself or someone else. Any phrasing that causes a hesitation or a hitch in your delivery is a clue.  

This Is What It Means to Be a Writer

Knowing when you’ve gone from making a sentence better to making it only different is what makes you a writer. Make this decision with every sentence you write, determined to make your entire manuscript the best you can—even knowing you’ll be edited again at the publishing house.

Commit to submitting only your absolute best writing.

What does your revision process look like? Tell me in the comments.

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  • Jeffrey Hulse

    @JerryJenkins This is the most frustrating aspect of the process to an unpublished writer. Especially since agents will politely notify you of their non-interest (if they do at all) with no explanation. I’m a corporate professional. I have no problem with someone telling me “Here’s what you need to do.” I’m a proud member of your Writer’s Guild for this very reason so I can continue to learn. I have to first get everything out, then I find myself re-writing, then re-writing some more, then looking at it again…because no one is there to say do this with your manuscript and it will be ready to be looked at. Forgive the rant…

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I hear you, Jeffrey, and in defense of agents, it’s not their job to improve your writing. That’s on you. And me.

  • Karen Sargent

    This is so timely. I’m proofing my print ARC right now, and I find myself wondering if some of the minor changes I want to make are really worth it. Making a sentence better or only making it different…that’s what I needed to hear. Thanks!

    • Glenda

      What is an ARC?

      • I believe its a TLA (three letter acronym) for Advanced Reader Copy.

        • Glenda

          Thanks, Ted.

          • Karen Sargent

            Yes, that’s it. Sorry for not being clear!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, Karen.

  • When I’m tired I tend to rearrange instead of make it better. After a night’s rest or getting away from it for a while, it usually is clear what sounds better. I think reading aloud is a big help.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Agree, Debbie, and rest is crucial to staying sharp.

  • Al

    For the final revision of my last two major books, I read the entire manuscript aloud. It took several days but was very productive. I could quickly tell which sentences and paragraphs needed more work, and the end result was worth the time and effort. Though it did leave me with a sore throat!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Great idea, thanks!

  • Elizabeth Herendon Dyer

    I’m a huge fan of reading aloud. If I stumble, I know the reader will, too. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good point, Elizabeth.

  • writebrainrd

    What a privilege it is to have the time and the energy to dive into sentences, and create beauty. The feeling I get when I do it is so satisfying. It is never a drudge, but rather an honor. That’s how I look at it. And this is particularly so lately when I’ve been stretched for time and energy wanes. I know what is possible, and because of that I never give up the dream of writing words that please me first, and then others.

    • Karen Sargent

      Sometimes I think I enjoy the revising more than the actual writing/creating. Is that weird? :)

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        I hope not, Karen, because that’s me too. The hard work is creating the first draft–getting that hunk of meat onto the carving table. The trimming and seeing it snap into shape, that’s fun.

        • Karen Sargent

          Agreed!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I couldn’t agree more.

  • Glenda

    Currently, my revision process seems to be rewording and just making a WIP different.
    Trust my gut. Read it aloud. Know that a publishing house makes revisions.
    Thanks, Jerry!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      :)

  • Rebecca Hricko

    That is the most frustrating part of the process for me, and I constantly wish I had more time to let my blog material ‘sit’ so I can come back to it, but it usually ends up working out anyway with enough elbow grease. Something that helps me to determine if it is ready or not is making sure it flows smoothly; if it is disjointed, I keep working. Reading it aloud helps me immensely, but getting the quiet and privacy to do so in a large household can be challenging.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      And the fight never ends for peace and quiet to work the way we’d like to. Sounds like you’re making things work regardless, Rebecca.

  • Lawrence Hebb

    Jerry
    I think my process starts at ‘first draft’ stage (I know Steinbeck said I shouldn’t!) I write, then spend the either thinking about the stuff I wrote (a clear sign it wasn’t right). As soon as I can i make changes until it ‘feels right’ then we move on.
    When I’m rewriting I try to remember to read out loud, but often just mouth the words, that’s when I spot any grammatical errors, when I’m satisfied with that I’ll ask a few friends to proof read for me.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good process, Lawrence. Similar to mine. I force myself to turn off my internal editor while writing my allotted pages for the day, then I do a heavy edit and rewrite of those pages first thing the next day, which catapults me into writing the next part of the draft.

  • nehasri

    True. Reading aloud is always helpful!

  • D. Holcomb

    I read somewhere (maybe from you?): you know you’re done rewriting when the last edit makes the piece worse.

    I tend to do more rearranging than rewriting. This is like moving the pillows on the couch from one end to the other and then back again. When that doesn’t make the piece better, I start rewriting scenes until there’s no life left in them. This is a problem.

    I want to be smarter about rewriting. I need an easy how-to book for pantsers on how to rewrite a novel.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Google rewriting a novel or revising a novel, and I think you’ll find a ton of stuff.

  • Cathy Gross

    So, I rewrote, self-edited ferociously, submitted a chapter and synopsis for professional evaluation. I believe the editing person tried to be encouraging, but apparently it is not as good as I thought. Thick skin comes in here, I believe and I am trying to be reasonable and take the advice as a learning tool. The question I have is this, do I continue to rewrite, self-edit this book or do I throw it down and start with something new?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s your call, Cathy. If you still believe in it, keep shooting at it. If you’ve lost the passion for it, move on with lessons learned.

    • Robert Jones

      Cathy–There’s a learning curve in writing that’s equal to any other craft. Most people don’t seem to consider that when they think in terms of writing a novel. We keep plugging away at our first attempt, trying to get it right…even if that early project has taught us all it can within it’s current time and place. We become too close to the work. However, the equivalent in any other craft would suggest an artisan can learn everything there is to know concerning craft by reworking their first project over and over. And we would naturally think that even if that artisan was becoming more proficient throughout their revisions on certain levels, they would never spread their wings and broaden themselves beyond whatever levels and techniques were required to finish a single piece. And yet, aren’t their all kinds of stories with a variety of characters, settings, experiences? I went through several different novels and stories while learning to get a handle on the craft of writing. Each story has taught me something new, given me a fresh view in which to come at the process. Past story ideas will always be there, waiting for us to return to them once we learn our chops. In finding myself as a writer, some of the stories I will probably return to one day in an altered form, others stories do not interest me in the least now. It’s a lot like growing up and discovering tastes that can only be acquired with time. Give yourself time. And enjoy the process.

  • Karen Crider

    It depends on the genre. Screen writing is very demanding. I spend a lot of my time cutting, refining, and fighting the computer. I have been taught to put the traits with the character. And that’s just one part of revision.. How do you do that without losing your own traits? My characters motivations lend me a little insight. Their antics and humor lend a little more. I see my characters in my mind’s eye and that helps. But what I see and someone else sees, is two different things. I write for my own delight and what I think a child can identify with. I use short words, shorter sentences, stuttering, humor and witticisms to have fun. That’s what kids like, and to have fun with it, it helps to be the biggest kid of all.

  • Big Shirl

    When I re-read my material, I use the thesaurus to give me more options to choose a variety of words. Just something simple but it does help me out.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Just be careful to use the thesaurus to remind yourself of alternate NORMAL words. It always shows (manifests) when a writer (scribe) has used (employed) a thesaurus to try (attempt/endeavor) to impress.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    I realized when I read this post that I was making a big deal out of this topic when I shouldn’t have. I do the two above things, trusting my gut and reading my work aloud, with everything I write. I thought there was more to it than that…LOL! So I worried that I should be doing more. But I guess I’m on the right track after all. Other than those two things, I’m just learning everything I can about writing and applying what I learn to my work.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      And if you’re like me, you’ll still be doing that 40-plus years into your writing career. The learning never ends, nor should it.

  • Helen Lynn

    Jerry, since I joined the Guild my fourteen year old granddaughter asks me to edit her themes. Today her friend sent her theme to me. I’m passing along your valuable info. Thanks a bunch!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Glad to be of help, Helen.

  • Heather Romans Turci

    I’ve completed my first draft, so I’m in the process of making my second draft completely unrecognizable to the first (hopefully for the better!). :) I open up both drafts side-by-side on my computer screen, and retype the second draft. Sometimes that means copying, or rewriting, or even launching down a new scene idea altogether. It seems like it’s taking a long time to complete, but I believe it’ll be worth it in the long run. Hopefully. :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Haste makes waste may be cliche, but it’s no less true. I speed the initial writing stage, but there’s no rushing the rewriting.

  • Greg

    I spent months writing and refining, writing and refining, writing and refining… Finally, it was good. All the bugs were gone. It was a great story. And all the typos were gone.

    You already know where this is going…

    I found a critique partner and we traded manuscripts. Boy oh boy am I glad we did. We barbecued each other and now both of our stories are better for the effort. Both for content and grammar/typos.

    From now on, at least for me, part of my revision process will include another set of eyeballs without the same preconceived notions I have about the characters and the whole story.

    (I had to delete my earlier draft of this comment because I didn’t proofread it well enough.)

    – Greg Scott

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      True enough, Greg. We are our own worst critics.

      • Greg

        Ya know . . . That brings up another good indicator on when it’s ready. I do a bunch of revisions, read it over, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head. Then I crash for the night, happy that it’s perfect.

        Next morning when the sun comes up, I look at the text again. Most of the time I wonder what I was thinking last night. But sometimes, it’s still good. When it looks as good the next morning as it did the night before, *then* it might be ready.

        – Greg

  • Linda Jewell

    Before I joined the Guild, I focused on self-editing redundancies and small stuff, like word choices, verb tense, grammar, and punctuation.

    Because I have more and better information since I joined the Guild, I’m learning to trust my gut about what’s working and what doesn’t seem right yet. I’m also addressing bigger issues by asking myself different questions. Did I include setups and payoffs for the reader? Do I have enough conflict? Am I showing or telling? Do I need to cut something interesting but irrelevant? Instead of dumping all of the backstory near the beginning, where can I weave it in later bit by bit?

    Last week I used your checklist to cut a story from 2,000 to 1,500 words so I could submit it to a contest. My gut says the story is better. In addition to your other self-editing tips, cutting to a certain number of words forced me to write tighter. I’m going to test this idea again on a 3,000-word short story by cutting it by 500 words to see what happens. ☺ If it’s not tight enough, I’ll set another goal to trim it by more words. If it’s too tight, I’ll add words.

  • April

    I am in the final stages of editing my first novel and this exact question has been creeping into my brain: when IS enough enough? I love “knowing when you’ve gone from making a sentence better to making it only different.” That hits it on the head for me. Thanks for the great advice.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, April.

  • Looks like I’ve been implementing one of your suggestions without even knowing its value. I find when I read it aloud as you said, every little hitch is evident. I’ve done this practice for a while now. It also helps to have another pair of eyes look at it. It’s funny though, while I am an auditory person, she is visual, so both areas are covered.

    I appreciated this so much because so many people ask when is enough enough and you have articulated it so well. Jerry, do you think sometimes people don’t ship their stuff because they’re letting perfection be their guide? Or do you think that should be a pair of glasses we don?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      As a perfectionist (but not perfect, wherein lies the run), I agree with Mike Hyatt on this. Perfection can be the enemy of excellence.

      I won’t submit sloppy work; I’ll make it the best I can; but I won’t wait for 100% perfection at the expense of getting it into the market.

  • Cathy

    It’s maddening, really, bouncing around between good, better, and best, knowing that what’s good this morning (after too much coffee) may stink tomorrow around 3 pm. I’m never satisfied. I have learned to be satisfied with never being satisfied.

  • Linda Larson Werhane

    I make my husband read it when I think I’m finished. My daughter is also a Writer, so I run things by her for sentence structure, words used, etc. She’s not only a help but she’s kind in her corrections
    .

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sounds like a great support system, Linda.

  • Jerry, I will have to admit that I never, ever, read things aloud (well not since being forced to in primary school). Yet when I suffered an eye injury a few years ago I found editing a major problem. This is when I installed some software to read to me. Since then I have been an advocate of reading aloud (or at least having the computer do it). This approach finds so many errors that I would not have otherwise found.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks for sharing that.

  • Carol Middlekauff

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/80f8acc617fe5cffb3e9e7374a05a20fa08de9953e9b1b9f50891179cee3f09b.jpg I went through my 66,000-word non-fiction book 12 times before I thought it was good/clear/interesting enough. I know we’re talking about rewriting, but lots of that work was proofing, too, looking for consistencies (e.g., use of “Him” or “him” for Jesus), looking for all quotes and parenthesis opened and closed, etc. This included having my husband, who has a great eye for spelling and other mistakes, and an editor friend from a national magazine read it and make comments, too. Then, AFTER it was published, I still found a few glitches. In the end, it’s all about clear writing, hoping for perfection, but not beating yourself up.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Exactly, Carol. Do you know the average 400-page book published by a traditional publisher–with the ms. having been read and edited and proofread by the author, often the agent, a substantive editor, a line editor, and sometimes the brass, winds up with an average of 10 errors in the printed version? Drives a perfectionist batty.

  • Preston Brad Rentz

    Your solution for this challenge was much simpler than I expected, clicked with me instantly. Grateful for you sharing this, especially as I begin another book.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks for your kind comments, Preston.

  • Jeff Adams

    I have spent too much time rearranging. Time to “Let it go, let it go.” Thanks, Jerry. This post from you may be the most useful one I’ve ever read.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks so much, Jeff.

  • Robert Murphy

    Thanks, it is very timely for me. I’m on rev. 7 and started reading my book out loud as I edited, but it’s still too rough to read cleanly. I think that the types of editing you do are an indication as to how close you are. I’ve moved several scenes and added a little detail here and there, but think that another rev will give me something I can send out for feedback.