There is one manuscript that I know I will never publish. I rewrote it once every year for six years. Those sequential drafts say a great deal about how I developed as a nascent writer, and the most recent one isn’t half bad.
But I will never publish that manuscript.
Somewhere along the line – maybe it was year three or four – the story became unmanageable. I can no longer see it for its merits and failings. Instead, I glimpse its history, how it grew and changed over the years and how I grew and changed with it. I could look at this manuscript as a failure, but I like to think about what it taught me.
The greatest lesson it gave was that there is such a thing as too many drafts. There is a such thing as too many rewrites.
Many authors suffer the curse of perfectionism. We strive to make our writing ever better, to choose the most sublime phrasing, to ensure that our characters breathe. This attention to detail can result in magnificent masterpieces that readers adore and keep on their shelves for decades. It can also cause paralysis, or in my case, the desire to write a thousand iterations of the same story.
At some point, we have to decide that a draft is good enough. Is that draft perfect? No, of course it isn’t. Regardless, we have to find a way to be proud of the works that we put out into the world even with all their flaws. Now I often restrict my number of potential rewrites – the final version must be finished by July 2017 for example – and that keeps me on task and prevents me from changing the same set of words sixteen times. Having an agent, a publisher, or an eager audience searching for that next work can also help motivate writers to finish a work.
It can be extraordinarily difficult to put written works into the world, but I make it easier for myself by remembering that editing a manuscript for too long can kill a story. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m glad I know it now.
Six drafts may be too many for me, but I’m sure the number differs for other writers. Whatever that number is for you, I think it is important to know your own limits and be able to ride the fine line of editing enough without completely shredding a story. After all, rewrites may be grand, but having a completed manuscript is grander.
Image Attribution: Sala capitolare di Santa Felicita, Niccolo Gerini, ca. 1390