How to stop writing.

Do you remember those movies about writers and their struggles? Without fail, there is a scene that shows a close-up of the page on the typewriter and you are witnessing the author typing „THE END“, centered, all caps, on a line by itself. A feeling of accomplishment and finality oozes from the screen and drips to the floor.

Anyone who isn’t a writer might actually believe that this is the way a writer finishes his work: by writing THE END on his first draft and mailing it off to his publisher, who fires up the printing press.

That never happens to me. Or anybody else. The moment I get to the final sentence, I start editing it from the beginning. I always find better, well, at least different, ways to express something. Even if, on the second round of editing, I change things back the way they were. I add whole paragraphs only to take them out in the next round. That pleasing feeling of accomplishment and perfection has never graced me yet. It never feels like finishing a piece. It’s more of an abandonment. Like a mother leaving her newborn at the church steps.

Over the years, however, I have learned that my numerous edits and re-edits accomplished increasingly less. The first one or two rounds of editing are, of course, necessary. That’s for filling holes in the plot, smoothing out edges and tightening language and style. But after that, it’s just the fear of letting go that would propel me to do yet one more edit round: it postpones facing the doom of certain failure. But, let’s be honest, if a piece is bad, the umpteenth re-write won’t make it good.

Now I follow a strict regimen which seems to work without leaving too many emotional scars:

  1. After I finish the first draft, I let my newborn opus sit for about four weeks before starting to edit. The break will give me some much needed distance. Make no mistake, the first edit, which transforms the First Draft into a Revised Draft, can take a long time and be a painful process. If you changed a lot, you might want to give it one more round of editing.
  2. Find a trusted person who will look at your work and give you honest feedback: this will be your beta reader. It’s good if there is a certain match in taste, of course. You don’t want a romance aficionado comment on your gory thriller and expect him to turn it into a better thriller. A good place to find a beta reader is on the net, in user groups and forums of like-minded people. It helps if you offer to reciprocate. Try critique circle on Facebook. Two or three beta readers are even better, unless you found the perfect match. I am lucky, because I have a perfect beta reader: my ex. She is a good writer but will also be ruthlessly honest. I couldn’t stand more than one ex scouring my writing.
  3. Take the input of your beta reader always with a grain of salt. It is, after all, only a single opinion. But don’t question it and don’t argue with him. It’s one person’s opinion, and opinions are what they are. Ultimately, however, it is your story and therefore it’s your decision how it should be written. Always be skeptical if your beta reader offers advice on how to re-write a section. Their feeling that this section doesn’t work is valuable information. Most of the time their advice on how to re-write something isn’t though. You are the author. You need to stay in the driver’s seat.
  4. After incorporating the advice of your beta reader(s) into your manuscript it is time to hand it off to a professional editor. Don’t try to skip this step. Everyone has an editor — and for a reason. I wrote more about what an editor does for you here.

That time proven process is: Writing the first draft – re-writing the revised draft – giving it to one (or several) beta readers – re-writing the story to incorporate their advice – handing it off to a professional editor and then having it published. This is what works. Don’t get stuck in the eternal re-writing loop. Don’t be me.

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