I found myself thinking about that question this morning as I worked on the third … no, wait … probably seventh incarnation of a bit of flash fiction.
The story began a few years ago as something much longer, but never went anywhere after the first dozen pages or so. This made me sad, because I like the idea behind it a lot and I’ve grown very fond of my main characters. Because writers get rid of nothing, I filed the story with the idea of revisiting it every now and then to see if the characters had anything new to say. Eventually, I plucked them out of that story and set them down in a piece I did for The Exquisite Project. Now I’m working on it again, expanding it a bit, following the trail of breadcrumbs the characters have left behind.
There are writers who never edit their work. I don’t know whether this is because a) they aren’t certain how to go about it; b) they’re afraid of facing the work again–after all, writing can be damned difficult; or c) they’re convinced their prose is so golden, sprouting unblemished from the brow of Zeus, that it needs no revision.
On that last one? They’re wrong.
I’ve heard of writers–the late Isaac Asimov comes to mind–who legend says could sit down at their keyboard, whack out a story, stick it in an envelope, and it was all good-to-go, destined to be sold. That isn’t me, nor is it any of the writers I know, whether personally or only through their stories. There’s always room for improvement.
So how many drafts are enough? The answer is in the question: however many it takes. That’s infuriatingly enigmatic for those of you who want a concrete answer, but it’s as solid as you’re going to get. Every piece of writing is different, but I’ve never written anything that wasn’t improved by time and editing.
In the first flush of completing a new story, you’re in love. You’ve written the next Great American Novel or Pulitzer Prize-winner! You just know it! My advice? Go take a long, cold shower. Put the story away for a few days, maybe as long as a week, and then come back to it with a fresh–and critical–eye. Trust me, you’ll find things that’ll make you cringe.
I can sometimes nail down a story in as little as four revisions, but seven seems to be my lucky number. However, my latest book, narrative nonfiction titled The Man Who Loved Elephants, went through eight revisions before I felt confident enough to offer it to agents. (Thank you, Bonnie Solow, for believing in this project!)
It takes time and effort to develop confidence in writing, let alone editing. It takes much practice, and it helps if you have other writers willing to critique your work with honest eyes–meaning not people who think your worst garbage deserves a gold star. It’s painful to realize, but it’s also growth to accept that some stories aren’t meant to be. I have a trunk manuscript of a novel I was convinced was going to be terrific. Three hundred pages–and many edits–later, I realized it was a muddy pile of dreck. There are good bits in it which I may use one day, and that’s why I’ve saved the manuscript. Among other things, writers are scavengers.
But you can also over-edit. Beware the EEL, the Endless Editing Loop, where you think that “just one more tweak” will somehow make the magic happen. It could be that the piece was never really very good and you should have abandoned it ages ago, chalking it up to experience. What’s more likely is that you’ve ruined what had been a fine bit of story-telling and it’s going to take even more work to go backward and try to salvage it … assuming you should.
My advice? Start something new. Always start something new.
What are you waiting for?