Once you make a habit of writing, there are things you come to expect, like characters ignoring the plot, one revision after another, and long hours spent in front of a computer talking to yourself, often out loud. What you don’t expect, is to discover a secret ingredient that brings your writing to a new level.
I set out to write my second novel, No Such Thing as Goodbye, armed with a lot of tea, excitement, and an intriguing main character; a mobster’s sister who fakes her death in order to get a fresh start.
After a few drafts and helpful feedback from my beta-readers, I wrapped things up, ready to pitch the whole thing to agents. I was confident the manuscript was ready. I’d tied up all the loose ends, fixed the story and polished the prose till it sparked more than a smile in a toothpaste commercial.
Fast forward to a few months later. I checked the file before sending out the second round of queries, in case I caught any obvious mistakes or typos.
My eyes widened in horror. Had I sent out the wrong file? Was this definitely the final version? I didn’t remember my prose sounding so mediocre or the plot still having hiccups? What the heck was going on? I was certain I’d sent out a gemstone, while the thing I was reading was more like a rock dug out of mud.
I turned to my cats, who ignored me, then took some time to investigate what was going on. Soon, I realized I’d stumbled upon something important. Namely, the secret ingredient, so simple it was easy to overlook.
Yes, I’m talking about time.
It wasn’t the text that had changed; it was my skills. Leaving the manuscript to rest for a few months enabled me to read it with a critical eye, as a reader and editor, instead of as its creator. Suddenly, I could take a step back and spot the flaws I couldn’t before, and then remove them with a deft tap of the delete key.
I sent a revised version of the novel out and, though it didn’t get me an agent, it was shortlisted and received an honorable mention on the 2020 Black Spring Crime Fiction Prize.
How to make time work for you
So, you’ve written a text, a story or a novel, and you’re tempted to plunge right into your first revision. Hold that thought. As counter-intuitive as this might sound, waiting with your revision might actually be more efficient. Here’s why:
You’ll hone your skills as a writer.
While your work is standing still, you’re moving on, picking up new skills and honing your craft. Once you get to that draft, be that a week or a month later, your skills will have improved and you’ll be more experienced and better equipped. So, all in all, you’re likely saving yourself an additional revision.
You’ll gain critical distance.
If you start revising immediately after writing something, you’ll likely be close to the text. You might be more keen on protecting your darlings, or worse, not spotting them while they parade past you in their shiny costumes.
Letting your writing rest, on the other hand, will allow you to approach the text with a sense of detachment. You’ll remember the gist of your story or article, but forget the details, making it easier to separate the crucial parts from the clutter.
Flaws and inconsistencies will jump out, darlings held in high regard will get slaughtered without a second thought, pointless characters and phrases will be easier to spot and take out. Critical distance is a priceless tool for taking a scalpel to your prose and dissecting it, as if it was someone else’s.
How long is enough, though?
The time needed depends on the length and type of your text. For short stories and articles, I’d recommend letting them stew for at least two to four weeks. When it comes to long-form writing like novels, leave them be for at least two months. If you can, three or four is even better.
I usually start working on something new right away, to help get my mind off the story I’ve finished. I’m continuously surprised how different that finished story feels once I get to it a few months later.
Your stories and narratives will develop
While you might give up on a specific story or challenge, your brains keep working with it in the background. That’s why sometimes, the answer or an idea pops up at a completely random time, possibly when you’re supposed to be doing something else and have nothing to write at hand.
Allowing for some extra time gives your work a chance and space to mature. You might think of a better opening, ending, or a fresh angle to approach things from. In short, there was not one single time where leaving a story to rest didn’t improve it.
Okay, so you’re ready to try this, to tweak your schedule and give the secret ingredient a chance. How to know when it’s enough, though?
When to stop revising?
The number of revisions depends on someone’s skills and confidence, and the latter doesn’t always reflect the former. If you’re not sure where to start, four revisions is a good rule of thumb, after which it’s good to get some external feedback. After that, one or two final swipes are likely enough.
Very skilled writers tend to need fewer drafts, though I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who stops at the second draft and isn’t Stephen King.
I’d strongly advise against sharing your first draft with anyone. As hard as it sometimes is to curb the enthusiasm after finishing something, of riding on that endorphin rush and sharing it with the world, you’d do well to put it in a drawer for a while. This way, you’ll be confident your work won’t be caught out wandering around people’s living rooms barefoot, wearing nothing but underpants.
Karmen Špiljak is a Slovenian-Belgian writer and author of the award-winning short story collection, Add Cyanide to Taste. She currently lives in Belgrade with her husband and two cats. You can follow her on Instagram, TikTok, and Goodreads, or learn about her secret lives on www.karmens.net.