All Done, or Not?
Deciding when your story is ready to submit.
March 7, 2019
One of the most satisfying things about writing is finishing a book or story. That last line typed, that last period placed almost always brings a rush of accomplishment. If you're like most of us, there are plenty of pieces you've started and never finished, so finishing deserves some applause all by itself. But it also means you've reached one of the most dangerous points in the writing process, because finishing a story often comes with an inner pressure to get the story out into the world. After all, most of us write with the goal of being read. This means we feel that pressure to submit as soon after finishing a story as possible. Unfortunately there are few better ways to get a rejection letter. (Or worse. After all many publishers simply say nothing at all if you send something they don't want. And you get to wait all that time only to be left wondering: did they read it? Did they hate it? Are they just holding onto it while they decide? What do I do?)
Slow Down and Celebrate
The first thing to do upon finishing a story or book or article is to set it aside and celebrate. Hey, you finished it. And it represents the culmination of everything you've learned about writing up to this point. And you're possibly at least a little bit in love with it. So take a moment to celebrate. I'm a huge fan of presents, so give yourself a gift. Do something you enjoy (read for pleasure, watch your guilty pleasure show, sip some wine, or savor a bit of chocolate) as a reward for sticking with this piece to the end. Also, I strongly recommend going ahead and posting about it online (but only if you have supportive friends and family). Whenever I post about finishing something, I get so many congratulations that I feel a little guilty. But it also gives me some emotional boost for the hard work ahead.
Work? I thought I Just Finished the Work!
Writing is work. That's totally true. And sticking with a piece all the way to the end is a big job in terms of creative and emotional energy. But it's not all the work you need to do. Now you need to start revisions and that needs to be a slow, careful, and focused activity. If you rush through it, you're not giving the piece the polish it needs to have the best chance of publication.
Revision isn't the same for everyone. My first revision pass is removing all the verbal tics that creep into my writing because they're part of my normal speech patterns. So I go through and cull out like, certainly, definitely, really, just, and other such words that pop into everything I write. I don't have to remove all of them, but I have to look at all of them to be sure they are existing for a purpose and not simply because it's part of my normal speech pattern. If I'm doing a fairly casual essay (like this one) that is supposed to sound like me, I'll be more generous in allowing tics. After all, they are part of who I am. But in my fiction and my informational nonfiction, I'll clear out every single one that doesn't serve a clear purpose in the line where it appears.
My next revision pass in fiction is always breaking the piece into sections and addressing just one section per day. I'll go after the section with an eye to more of my writing weaknesses: am I setting the scene clearly enough? Am I considering the physicality of the character enough? Does my dialogue include both voices and action? Also I can get caught up in a scene and not give enough thought to pacing. Does the pacing in the scene match the emotion I'm attempting to convey and create. If my pace is too fast, I'll put in more scene and detail. If my pace is too slow, I'll tighten up sentence length.
Be the Tortoise, not the Hare
The pressure to get something out there and into submission can be crushing during the revision process. That is one of the reasons my revision process has very clear, set stages designed to keep me from going too fast and overlooking things. I have things in my process geared to my specific writing weaknesses. I also have global process tips that will help any writer, such as reading the work aloud and making a full read with an eye to continuity. You'd be amazed at how many stories editors receive where character names aren’t spelled in a consistent way or where physical details of a character change during the story. If a tall, willowy kid complains about being short and squat, the reader is going to wonder if he has some kind of body image issue and why nothing is being done about it.
Take your time in revision. Don't be afraid to rewrite parts of it. I often rewrite opening scenes or closing scenes during the revision process. I'll do it in a whole new document. Writing the opening after you know the whole story so intimately can be a revealing step during a revision. Revision is a very personal thing and your revision process will change over time as you come to know yourself as a writer more and more. The key to using it to its best advantage is to take it slow. And do more than one pass. Few if any decent revisions were ever done in a single pass.
Slow and steady. And in the end, you'll be a winner.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.