As most writers will tell you, there’s a fine line between careful writing and analysis paralysis. When you’re in the middle of making revisions, it’s hard to forget that you could always edit your work more.
That’s why sometimes, in the quest for the perfect way to say something, a writer can get hung up on last-minute changes and revisions, ever in search of an elusive sense of completion, and not let go of a piece.
How do you know when your careful editing becomes too much?
Take a look at the top three telltale signs it’s time to overcome perfectionism, release your writing, and move on:
1. You’ve already edited—thoroughly.
A top sign your piece is ready to publish is when you’ve already edited it well. How can you be sure you edited sufficiently? Run down this checklist of important editing tasks:
Correct grammar and spelling errors.
Not to set the bar too high, but “good writing is error-free,” says Anna Goldsmith of Copyblogger. “This means perfect spelling and no typos.”
Writing clean content isn’t as impossible as it sounds. Run spell-check, and then read through your writing a few times. Look for commonly misused words that sound alike, such as to, two and too; your and you’re; their, they’re and there, etc.
Also double-check the spelling of proper names, and refresh yourself on ways to make your copy readable. Then, trust that you’ve performed these checks.
Read it out loud.
One of the most powerful ways to edit is to read your writing out loud. It exposes the rhythm and clarity of your text.
“Sometimes when we write, we create filler,” says Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest. “We don’t think deeply about what we’re saying. We include throwaway lines. Reading something out loud has an unusual way of bringing this to your attention.”
To carefully edit your text, read it out loud a few times, and then move on.
Sleep on it.
One time-tested key to effective editing is to get a fresh perspective—just once. Get away from your work for a little while—even if just for a night—to give your mind a break while you find new inspiration and distractions.
“Wait at least a night, and preferably longer,” says Dustin Wax at Lifehack.org. “Ideally, you want to forget what you wrote, so that—again—your brain doesn’t see what it expects to see but only sees what’s really there.”
Once you allow yourself to return to your work anew, revise, rearrange and rest assured you’ve done what you should.
Enlist help from a fresh set of eyes.
Sometimes you have to get an outsider’s opinion before you can really rest. “If you have a critique partner that rips your work to shreds and points out every glaring plot hole, good. Hold on to them. They’re invaluable,” says Avalon Jaedra of Writability.
But she also adds, “After they’ve gone through your manuscript and you’ve made the necessary changes, trust your readers.”
2. Your inner critic is talking.
Many writers recommend enforced periods of just writing or just editing, if only to quiet their inner editor who questions and revises every word they write.
If you hang on to your writing because you’re not sure it’s good enough, ask yourself why. Is your inner critic at work? Consider these signs that the voice you hear isn’t the one to listen to:
You’re worried you won’t like the piece.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an actor, painter or writer—creative people seldom feel confident about their work. That’s probably why many don’t like to view or read their material years later. We all know something could have been better, but if we wait until the moment when we no longer feel that way, we could wait forever.
You let fear dictate your editing.
Do you keep editing because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t? Are you afraid someone will reject or misunderstand your work, or deem it incomplete?
“Perfectionism can be a good thing. It can lead to great accomplishments. But it can be damaging, too,” says Meghan Ward of Writerland. “It can slow us down, it can prevent us from putting ourselves out there, from taking risks. And in order to get published, we need to be willing to put ourselves out there. We need to take risks—in our writing and in our lives.”
You’re after some illusory perception of genius.
Writers often get hung up on the writing of someone they admire and discourage themselves from completing a project until it meets that perceived level of greatness.
“If you aspire to high-level creative work and/or depend on your creativity for a living, then the myth of genius could seriously damage your work and your career,” says Mark McGuinness of Lateral Action.
3. Time is not on your side.
Over-editing wastes time. Every minute you spend taking out commas and putting them back in, rewriting the introduction only to change it back, or staring out the window while you wish for inspiration is a minute you could spend on your next project.
Your deadline will still come. When you know time is against you, it’s probably time to metaphorically lay down that red pen.
Your productivity suffers.
Over-editing can be the biggest time suck known to the writing profession. When you no longer actively improve your piece—whether through revising grammar mistakes or reading your words aloud—you know you’re wasting time.
You reach your deadline.
For some writers, the only way to finally stop tweaking is to face a deadline—whether real or self-imposed. “When that deadline comes, I’m done—whether I like it or not,” says Nina Amir of WriteNonfictionNow.com. “At that point, I stop working on the article, essay or book. Many times I don’t ever reread the piece. I don’t want to know if I could have improved it!”
The reason deadlines can be so helpful is they force a writer to end the quest for perfection. Though we can always improve our writing, we will never feel satisfied if we seek the epitome of creativity, clarity, and brilliance.
After you edit, recognize the voice of your inner critic, and realize it’s time to stop tweaking, avoid the vicious cycle of editing and re-editing and take our advice: Give yourself permission to be done.