Can You Edit Too Much?

This post is by Elisabeth Grace Foley.

I’ve heard a lot of people say short stories should be written quickly, on the spur of the moment, and shouldn’t be edited or fussed over. I’m an exception to that. Occasionally, a short story will come out almost the way I want it on the first try, but usually I spend plenty of time carefully editing, re-editing and polishing each one, just as I would for a full-length novel. Which means I also become susceptible to one of the pitfalls of careful editing—overdoing it.

Can you edit too much?

I’m not just talking about perfectionism—that’s another story. There’s another kind of overdoing it—if you spend a lot of time carefully editing one particular story, you can reach a point where you’re just plain tired of it, if for no other reason than that you’ve been staring at it for so long. Sometimes this can have a bad effect on your perception of the story. The writing starts to seem either flat or overblown, the dialogue ridiculous and the plot paper thin. You wonder whatever made you write the thing in the first place, and why in the world you ever imagined you could be a writer. That usually means it’s time to take a step back.

When I submitted my short story “Disturbing the Peace” to a competition last fall, I’d spent so much time working on it and getting it just right that, frankly, I couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore. I was satisfied with it, but I’d had my fill of it for the time being. Even after it placed in the contest and was published online, I couldn’t bring myself to read it all the way through again.

luding it in The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories, I was reluctant. I hadn’t looked at the story in months, but remembering how I’d felt back then, I was afraid I’d only be disappointed. But I gritted my teeth and started reading…and I was amazed. Did I write that? I couldn’t believe how much better it seemed than when I finished with it months before. The story hadn’t changed, of course—I was just seeing it with a fresh perspective. The extent of my revisions for putting it in the collection was adding one single word.

I’d had good results with taking a break from projects before, but this experience brought home to me what a difference a fresh perspective can make. Pushing too hard on a project to the point of discouragement could cause you to spoil or scrap something that has promise. On the other hand, if there are problems with a story, you’re not going to be able to spot them if the whole thing looks bad to you. Take a break, work on something else for a little while or even take a short vacation from writing, and when you pick up that troublesome project again later on, you may be surprised at how things have fallen into their proper place—how you’ll be able to see more clearly which things actually need fixing and which things bothered you before simply because you were tired of them. It’s an experiment worth trying.

About the Author: Elisabeth Grace Foley is a 21-year-old author of historical fiction who is really too young to have done anything interesting enough to put into an author bio. She is busy trying to do something about that. She blogs at The Second Sentence and lives with her family and a large stack of writer’s notebooks in the northeastern U.S.

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’m so glad I visited today. I have a couple of short stories that I wrote this year, and found I enjoyed the process very much. I want to do more, and I would love to read your book. It’s not often we find books of short stories. I am curious to know what contests you entered. Thank you, and good luck, Elisabeth.

  2. Thnx for the article, Elisabeth.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Elisabeth!

  4. Thanks, Elisabeth. I know if I work to much on a project, I get sick of it. Great advise to give the story—and myself—a break.

  5. A good post Elisabeth and such good advice. I’ve jut spent the last few days knocking a short story into shape for a competition and right now I hate it! I’m looking forward to re-reading it a few months from now. 🙂

  6. Michelle, I entered Rope & Wire’s (a website for Western enthusiasts) first annual Western short story contest. They’re accepting entries for the second one right now, incidentally. I used to have a hard time writing short stories, but now I really enjoy reading and writing them. Thanks so much for your comment!

    Gideon, Lorna, you’re very welcome.

    K.M., thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it!

    Jtwebster, that sounds very much like my experience. 🙂 Good luck with your story!

  7. Excellent- thank you so much for sharing this. Look forward to more posts. 🙂

  8. I just recently started writing a few short stories and just getting ready to go over and edit them. This article came at just in the nick of time.

    Hugs!!

  9. Very interesting points. There comes a time when enough is enough when it comes to editing and picking something apart. I’ve experienced this with writing and with design as well. You touched on this, but sometimes stepping away for awhile and coming back to a project really helps you gain a new perspective/direction. Thanks for the article!

  10. Nicely done Elisabeth… you are wiser than your years. Over the last couple of years I’ve learned staring at the blank page is the hardest. So I try to rough sketch things out while I’m on the creative side of my brain with no care for spelling, grammar, or structure. Just smash the idea out. Hopefully, in a good week or two or month, I have lots of ideas to grab from and work with. Enjoyed your post very much, thanks…

  11. Cathy, glad it was helpful! I hope your stories turn out well.

    Rochelle, Thomas, you’re welcome.

    René, thank you very much! I always start out by scribbling a lot of notes too – character names, rough sketches of scenes, bits of dialogue, etc. I don’t like to start a short story until I have a fair idea how it’s going to end, or else I tend to get stuck in the middle!

  12. Super post, Elisabeth! I worked on a picture book manuscript for ages…I was sick of it by the time I presented it to an agent. She said I had a lovely poem, but not a picture book. You have to know when to stop editing and revising and when to move on to a new piece. 🙂

    I stopped by via Sheri Larsen’s post about you. 😀

  13. I’m so glad I found your post via Sheri Larson and the ‘Pay it Forward’ blog fest. I’ve written short stories fast, and had some I’ve slaved weeks over. Great post. I’m a new follower.

  14. I came over here from Sheri Larson’s post. Glad I visited. Nice post!

  15. Once my interest starts to fade, I give the story to someone else to read. And then when it comes back – hopefully with a lot of critical “what ifs” – it’s like looking at a brand new story.

  16. Experiencing this to the umpteenth with a novel I’ve been working on. For a long time. A very, very long time. And I’m getting the courage to abandon it, at least for a long time. Good to hear it might be the best idea ever!

  17. I have done exactly the same thing except I put it aside and never picked it up again. I got so frustrated and decided it was no good. After reading this I think I will go back and look it over. It has been over a year, it was more or less scrapped. Not the first one either. Great article…thanks for sharing your experience.

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