Recently I talked about the risk of overediting your manuscript. In other words, making it SO technically perfect that it was about as lively as boiled broccoli. Some of you agreed with me; others argued that you can always make a manuscript "more perfect", that you should never stop trying to make it better.
As a perfectionist myself, I understand where those people are coming from. In all aspects of life, I feel like I can always do better, that I should never stop trying to improve. And improvement IS good. We can't get complacent. We should always be learning. BUT, I do believe that with a manuscript it's a bit of a bell curve when it comes to editing it.
You start with your funky rough draft. You rework, rewrite, polish. You work with your crit partners. The dot on the graph moves up--you're making it better! But I do believe you hit a point, a peak, where you've gotten it as good as it's going to be (before a professional editor takes a look at it.) If you keep pushing it after that point, you're reworking it so hard that you are draining the fire and magic from the words. You're taking out what makes that book special and different from other books (and oftentimes inserting your critique partner's vision of your manuscript instead of your own). You're murdering the vision your muse had in the first place. And the story is going to be pasteurized by the time it hits an agent's or editor's desk.
Don't believe me? Dear Author had a post this week talking about what she learned from this year's RWA from talking to editors. One of the points on her list spoke to this issue:
Editors think that authors self censor too much (and that critique partners may be doing more harm than good). I heard more than one editor say that the manuscripts that they like best are ones where they can see the raw voice of the author. Many times, submissions come in that are polished so much that they are too smooth to be interesting. Write with raw passion, authors. This is an industry built on emotion and the manuscripts have to show this.
Re-read that statement again. Editors are looking for the raw talent in your voice, in the way you tell a story--not if you had one too many adverbs on the page.
Now that's not to say you shouldn't study craft and grammar and use things correctly, but that isn't what you should be obsessing about. Polish your manuscript but you don't have to follow EVERY RULE ever created for writers. And your critique partners are there to help you, but what they say IS NOT LAW. Even if they are a more established author than you are. This is YOUR BOOK.
Six Tips to Help Watch Out for Death by Critique
But first, a disclaimer...
If this is your first book, get good critique partners and listen with open ears to everything they say (even if you don't incorporate it all) and read books on craft. On your first go around, many times more experienced crit partners are going to have advice you really need to hear. This goes back to my rule: Don't query that first book until you've had someone not related to you or sleeping with you to critique it.
If this is not your first rodeo...
1. Write your rough draft without input from others.
Stephen King said in On Writing--write the first draft with the door shut. Then after you're done, open the doors and windows and let others in. I have found this to be true for me. If I get feedback while I'm drafting, it freezes me up and confuses my muse. Critique and creativity do not make good bed partners for me. Now, I know some will disagree with this and prefer to have chapter by chapter input as they are writing. If that works for you, that's fine. (Julie Cross sends chapters to her editor as she writes and that works great for her.) But make sure it's really working for you. Have you finished a manuscript yet? Or are you just constantly re-working as you go because you're getting outside input?
2. Get critiqued on big picture.
Line edits (super detailed edits) are notorious for sucking out voice. Your word choice, the style of your sentences, structure of your prose is YOUR voice and your style. This is why finding the right editor for this is so important once you're publishing. You have to find someone who "gets" your voice and style. When others who don't get it (or those who are focused on following every rule) start tinkering with it, it muddles that at best, murders it at worse. So ask you crit partners for feedback on the big stuff: plot holes, flow, logic, characterization, emotional arc, plot arc, etc. Those are the things that are hard to see in your own work because you're so close to it. And save the line edits for a pro who gets you. My publisher has "style sheets" made for each author so that editors know what our style quirks are. Mine says things like: sometimes uses short incomplete sentences. That's part of my style, and though it's grammatically incorrect, it's kept.
3. Check your gut.
This is your story and these are your characters. You know them better than anyone. So if your crit partner gives you a suggestion, step back and make sure it resonates with you. I don't care if they are a NYT Bestselling author--if the change doesn't feel right in your gut, don't do it! That goes for when you have an editor, too. You don't have to make every change if you don't feel good about it. Have the confidence to know that you can tell the difference between advice that makes your book better and advice that doesn't. This confidence only comes with time, unfortunately. However, if more than one person bring up an issue, it may be something to look hard at even if your gut is fighting you.
4. Re-evaluate your critique partnerships regularly.
Crit partners are wonderful. I don't think I would've gotten to this point if I hadn't joined my first crit group. I learned so much. But that doesn't mean that group or that person is going to be right for you forever and ever, amen. We outgrow each other. We go in different directions. Or maybe THEY'VE become too close to your writing as well and now can't see the things they need to see to help you. If you feel like you're getting crits back and the advice is no longer helping you or it's draining your voice (even though the advice is good-intentioned), then stop wasting their time and yours. Doesn't mean you have to stop being friends, but maybe you don't need to be beta readers for each other anymore.
5. Know enough about craft and grammar so that you don't distract from your story.
Yes, I'm advocating not shooting for perfection and for playing with style. BUT you also need to have a good handle on craft and grammar. If your handle on the rules and conventions is so low as to pull the reader out of the story, you're not going to get anywhere no matter how good your story may be. You need to know the rules in order to make deliberate style choices if and when you decide to break some of those rules.
6. Edit until you love the story, not until it's perfect.
Outside of crit partner relationships, edit your story until you can read through it and love it. Don't edit it until you can't find ANYTHING to change or fix because there will always be something you can find to fix. And that's when you start cutting too deep. It's like people who want a little plastic surgery. They just want to fix that bump in their nose. But then they get that done and realize--ooh, now that makes my chin look too big. So they fix that. Then their cheek bones don't look angular enough. And so it goes until they don't resemble the person they used to be.
Don't do this to your manuscript. The things we love the most often have imperfections--and sometimes that's the very reason we love them. Make sure your manuscript is the one that the editor can feel the raw passion bleeding from. Do that, and you're golden.
So what do you think? Does this idea send you into a perfectionist panic? Does it give you a sigh of relief? Have you ever sensed your manuscript was getting more and more anemic as you edited it? Have you ever had to leave a crit partner relationship because it just wasn't working or helping anymore?