Editing is a lot like raising teenagers. And I’m not referring to the popular admonishment that you kill your darlings (tempting as it may sometimes be if you’ve ever had to live with a teenager).
What I’m talking about is the relentless striving towards absolute perfection. You want your precious creation to make a good impression and be successful. You correct. You tweak. You refine. But at some point you have to step back and let the work stand on its own, just like with teenagers. If you don’t then you may wind up with a rebellious, incomprehensible, disastrous mess that you’ll insist is the work of alien abduction. Again, just like with teenagers.
But when is enough? The million dollar question that comes with just a two cent answer—there is no answer. Much of it depends on your experience as a writer. If you’ve already had some success as a writer, three or four drafts may do. If you are attempting a novel for the first time, ten drafts may still seem insufficient. Anyone who has ever raised more than one child will agree it’s a very different experience between the first born and the last. That’s because we learn, we grow, and we gain experience and confidence.
Ask yourself “Have I made my point? Is my message clear? Is the writing as compelling as I can make it?” If the answer is yes, then it’s probably time to pack it up and send it off to an editor for a final polish, just like sending your teenagers off to college. You’ve taught them all you know about integrity, compassion, doing laundry, and not letting their underwear show in public. So knowing this is the natural progression of life, you bravely leave them waving back at you from the curb of their strange new world. Your writing must go through its stages of life as well, or else it too will end up living in your basement for the next thirty years, taking up space and making pointless demands on your time.
If you find yourself fretting over sentence structure or word choice, but the meaning remains the same, unless it makes the wording more rhythmically or phonetically appealing, then it’s time to let it go. The truth is no word holds exactly the same meaning, or more importantly emotion, for every reader. Most people love cheesecake. I once got food poisoning and the last thing I had eaten was cheesecake. Trust me, cheesecake conjures a different emotion for me than it does for most. Make the best choice you can and then let it go.
Remind yourself that it is not about perfection. Your teenagers won’t be perfect when they leave home, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do good works or benefit society. You may be a gifted writer, but you will still not be able to achieve absolute perfection. By setting that unrealistic goal you deprive the world of hearing what you have to say. Do the best you can, strive for excellence, and let God bring about the perfection.
And just like with teenagers, the letting go just may teach you a little something about yourself.