Once upon a time, I hadn’t known how many times a manuscript had to be edited before it made it into print. If you asked me some months or years ago, my answer would be ‘um, a lot?’. It definitely is a lot but even then, I had no clue that a lot could mean dozens of times. Now that I do, I thought it great to give everyone a heads up so you don’t get shocked like I did when you realize books can’t go from inception to traditional publication in about two months!
After you write your first draft, you typically have to self-edit it about three times before sending it to beta readers/critique partners for feedback. The intensity of their feedbacks would help determine how many more times you need to revise the manuscript before sending it out. So let’s say you revise until you and your reviewers feel it’s sparkling and now you begin to query. Great news: an agent or ten want it, yay! This means it’ll go right on to submissions, right? Well… no. I learnt this from experience.
Before submissions, if you have a keen-eyed agent who has a fantastic vision for your story, you’ll do at least one or two rounds of edits with your agent to get that MS shiny. I went through three rounds with my agent. So, let’s say you toil for weeks/months and afterwards your agent is ecstatic at the state of the MS, great! You should be done with editing that book forever, right?
Not quite. Here’s the thing, once your book does sell to a publisher, you’ll spend months and months editing it.
So yup, the summary is that books require pah-lenty of editing.
And the scary fact (at least, I find it scary), is that if you don’t execute a feedback as well as is required, you may not move forward on the path to publication and might have to keep going back to fix that issue until you get it right. Proper editing could mean you advance through the levels pretty quickly (e.g. when you see a writer get an agent within days/weeks of querying and a book deal a month after that), while poor editing could mean taking much longer to move past a stage. So, if your critique partner says your MC reads as one dimensional and you rush through fixing it hence don’t quite succeed, you might keep getting rejections to full manuscript requests until you do improve that drawback. Same with your agent. If you don’t execute the provided feedback, you might spend longer editing before finally going on submissions.
So to move forward at a good pace, one important fact is that you have to do your absolute best to execute important feedbacks to the T.
The issue for we writers though is that with a book you’ve been editing for months/years, one whose every sentence and punctuations you know like the back of your hand, it can be difficult to gauge by yourself how well you’ve executed a feedback. Is it satisfactory yet?
And beta-readers can only reread your work so many times. This means you/me/we have to figure out how to review our own work and ensure by ourselves that we’ve properly implemented essential feedback.
This is where I suggest completing a draft and Leaving It To Cool.
Leaving It To Cool
When I first started writing novels, I would write the first draft and self-edit at the same time, and then leave the story for about a month before diving back to reread and also edit in the process. At that time, I had no thoughts of getting published and leaving the MS was just so that it’ll feel brand new to me when I started reading it again—at the time I was only writing to entertain myself. When I started pursuing publication, however, I lost touch with this (very effective) editing method. Because I was on a self-set deadline, I would revise right after completing my MS and then send it off to my beta-readers. While it was with them, I’d keep going through bits of the book and tweaking and editing—sometimes asking them multiple times if I could resend it, lol! And once I get their feedbacks, I would get right to editing and then share it again.
No time to distance myself from the MS.
Sometimes the following feedback would say I didn’t quite hit all the spots, or make the adjustments correctly. It wasn’t until recently when I was editing my Fantasy series that it hit me just how effective leaving a WIP to sit in is for editing! I wrote A Precinct Of Flames 1-3 first drafts from September 2020 to August 2021. After this, I wrote my Regency, and then took time off writing to query and work on the Regency. Getting back to editing the Book 3 of A Precinct Of Flames in December 2021 felt like reading it for the first time, or rather like reading with it fresh eyes.
This was great for the second round of edits. It made it so much easier to catch vague explanations, plot holes, overly lengthy sentences, unrealistic dialogues, etc. And it reminded me of my former editorial process. It also made me think of how much time and effort (aka stress!) I could cut down on revisions if I only set projects aside for a while before reworking them. I wouldn’t have caught these faults in Book 3’s WIP if I’d revised it immediately after completing the first draft. Then I would’ve sent the not-so-greatly revised manuscript to my beta readers and they would’ve had to push through reading a super flawed story. This would’ve led to more back and forth between me and them, more revisions for me and rereads for them, both also avoidable.
So while it is easier to rush to write and submit because you’re buzzing to get published, or because you’re so in love with your concept and are certain readers would adore it too, waiting pays off better. Because if your concept really is phenomenal, it could get buried beneath plot holes or typos and your readers won’t get to appreciate the genius of your mind.
Setting your manuscripts aside for a while before editing can go a long way in enhancing the quality of your work. So put that brand new manuscript away today and pick up that older one (you know which one) to re-polish. Even if you don’t feel like, even though you feel pretty good about your concept, just wait for a tick. You won’t regret it!
You know when you’re cooking a meal that smells amazing, and then you taste it while it’s still sizzling. Remember how it burns your taste buds because it’s still really hot, and you can hardly taste anything to know if it’s as good as it smells? That’s exactly how it is with revising a book immediately after completing the first draft. On the other hand, when you leave the food to cool just for a bit so it’s warm (not cold), you can taste all the flavors and know if it needs more salt or spice, or if it’s just right. Don’t let the food get cold though, cause then you’ll feel reluctant to eat it—even though it’s a meal you spent hours and lots of cash on. In other words, don’t let your book sit in for so long that you lose touch with the plot and characters!
How long do you leave MSs to sit in before querying or sending to betas? Two days? Two years?
L.O. Nobi is an avid writer, one of her prominent projects DESTITUTES AND FIENDS on submissions to editors. She’s a lover of words, Disney, and represented by her agent. You can find her tweeting here, or visit her personal blog here.