Taming Your Overgrown Manuscript

Typewriter, notebook, and cup of coffee

They say that writing is rewriting. Or rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. Or put more bluntly, revision hell.

But how to tell when enough is enough? Where is the mysterious epiphany that lets a writer know when she is “done”?

I can’t answer that. But I can tell you that my revisions have taken far, far longer than my first draft. And that many of my early revisions were simply pushing words around on the pages. I wasn’t making hard choices. I wasn’t making hard cuts.

I was stalled out. I’d been living with the story so long that I could no longer see it clearly. I knew I needed outside perspective beyond what my first readers had given me.

Through a writer’s workshop and residency (led by the incredible Meg Wolitzer and attended by a supremely warm and talented group of fellow writers), I found the courage and faith that I could really rework the material and breathe fresh life into it. Since then, I’ve cut 25,000 words from my overgrown manuscript. For mathy folks, that’s a 21% decrease.

It wasn’t easy, but I believe this newer, leaner iteration of the novel is moving much closer to telling the story the way it should be told.

So how did I get there?

Taking Breaks

Long, hard breaks. Sometimes I put the manuscript aside for days, weeks, or even a few months to work on other things. When I returned, I could see it more objectively. By the same token, sometimes you’ll find that you need to write every day so that you don’t lose your thoughts and the connective tissue between chapters.

Getting it Wrong

Words are tricky, slippery things. Maybe a chapter has to be written wrong three or seven or 15 ways before it turns out right. Maybe it takes us that long to know when we’re only making something different, not necessarily making it better. (If anyone has a formula to make this faster, please let me know.)

Cut, Cut, Cut

We know that our job is to show, not tell. But showing takes a long time. So we must also decide – what things do I need to show? What is superfluous? How do I keep the writing interesting with tension, plot development, and spicy emotions? (If spicy emotions are your thing. I dig ‘em.)

At the end of the day, it’s saying enough to tell the story and getting rid of everything else. And having faith that when you let things go, better art emerges.

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