Typos. Poor characterization. Logic gaps. Silly sentences. Doggone pests plague writers everywhere. We sit at our desks day in and day out scanning every line for the tiniest, flea bitten error.
While organizing my room, I unearthed a box filled with old writing I’d saved from high school. Some stories, I recalled, had been pretty good. I’d typed them up and shared them online. Those accounts and websites are lost to the ages now. Only these handwritten hard copies remain. Maybe I’d spend the afternoon reading through a few to see if there was anything inspiring.
The chickenscratch handwriting should have been the first warning sign that the delightful memories cocooned in my mind were about to hatch into scummy, writhing leeches.
By the time I finished deciphering the first page, I was deep in the following process of despair:
Okay. Gotta remember I was about sixteen when I wrote this.
Oh, that’s bad.
Shit. I was sixteen! How the hell did I get into college?
Everyone who ever read this and said they liked it was lying.
OMG I let people read this.
I need to throw this in the trash before anyone else loses their eyes to this dumpster fire. If my boyfriend finds this, I’ll never be able to look him in the eye again. Because he won’t have any.
And so the horrifying thoughts continued until I threw the papers back in their box and shoved them in a dark corner underneath my bed. Some monsters, I decided, are just too terrible to forget.
But as any writer will tell you, going back and looking at that first (or second) draft is, for some of us, a necessary evil. One of the common and most useful pieces of writing advice you'll get after finishing a novel is to put it away in a drawer and leave it there for a while. No, you can't take even a quick peek to coo at your newborn Precious. You’ve got to leave it long enough that you forget all about your tremendous achievements within and can view it in the light of day with sober attention and focus.
Why on earth would anyone want to wait?
Many a good cut of meat needs time to rest after cooking. Slicing too soon (usually 10-15 minutes is a good wait but it depends on what you've got) can result in loss of flavor and juices as the inner liquid needs time to redistribute evenly throughout the meat.
Your writing isn't going to change between the moment you put it into a drawer and when you pull it back out. The adverbs aren't going to rearrange and the misplaced commas won't find their way home. What changes is your perspective.
When you aren't obsessively hovering over each and every word your brain does what most brains do; buries the old information under new sensory input. You go to school or work, you meet up with friends, get annoyed over that guy in the left lane, shop for a new carpet, there’s a new password for your online banking that you need to remember, etc.
When you go back after a certain length of time you might actually forget some of the things you wrote and the way you wrote them. And when you get to that point, you get closer to the reader experience. And you tend to be more open to editing.
But Kellie, my novel is 65,000 words. I can't recite my writing line by line now. Why should I have to wait?
There's an old idiom floating around in writing circles, "Can't see the forest but for the trees." Meaning, you are so close to the little details that you can miss seeing the big picture. Sometimes a sculptor needs to take a step back and look at the entire face before carving out the second nostril. You wouldn’t want to put two hours of work into a project only to realize that the nose was crooked this whole time.
You may think it's silly now, but that's part of how the saying works! Most writers will tell you that after leaving a manuscript alone they've caught mistakes they must've skipped a hundred times before.
What about editing as you go?
Several writers take this route, writing everything carefully and neatly as they go and rearranging as they see fit throughout the process. That's okay. Their draft may turn out more polished than yours (or it may not; we do not all write equally). If they're paying careful attention and know how to edit, they may have less to edit later. Or they may only wind up with really clean sentences and have a lot of work to do for story structure.
But odds are they're still going to have some form of a draft two, just to make sure they aren't blind to something. Most good writers are perfectionists. They want to put their best foot forward...so they can almost always find one more tiny thing to change.
So, let's say I decide to let my writing rest. What's a good length of time?
Depending on who you ask around the industry, you'll get a different answer. Some writers claim just a couple weeks is okay. Others will hang onto a draft for six months to a year. Generally, I've seen times recommended for anywhere between six weeks to three months and most people regard that as reasonable and successful.
The other super-helpful advice often passed on to people who ask the question is, "However long you think. It's up to the individual."
And that's true. You know yourself best. When I was a younger writer this would drive me crazy because I didn't know and wanted some guidance. So I tried everything until I found something that worked for me. That's what you'll have to do, too.
How can I tell what's good for me?
A good test is to see how often you're thinking about it. If you're just bouncing around with your eyes on the clock, it's probably not time. If you think of it in passing here and there (oh, I wonder if I should edit tomorrow), you're probably in the clear. You want to wear off that shine from the first time, but you don't want to forget about it to the point where you're just being lazy. And you know when you're procrastinating. We all do it, and we all know when we're doing it. In fact, instead of reading my post, I’m browsing the internet for a cool picture of Cthulhu.
Look, resting is great and all, but I'm excited about this piece and I don't have millions to live off of while I'm waiting for my writing to set. Do you have any other recommendations?
Most of us can’t wait ten+ years to find mistakes in our manuscripts, so we often see it recommended that you write something else and get back to it in about three to six months. Depending on what kind of a deadline you’re working on and the amount of money you’re working with, we can’t afford to leave that manuscript in a drawer that long. There’s a lot of pressure in the market today to keep putting out novels. And for those of you choosing self-publishing, you don’t necessarily want to “keep writing and wait until the timer’s up.”
The wait time is mostly about putting distance between yourself and your Precious. If you're really busy and don't have time to sit around pining after the locked drawer or computer file, you'll be okay. Marathon Game of Thrones. Watch your favorite team. Bake a cake. Teach your dog a new trick. Take your kids for a walk down a new hiking trail. Give yourself new experiences and you'll forget faster than just sitting around moping about how much you want to edit.
I do have one favorite way to distance myself: read someone else's writing. And then someone else’s. And someone else’s. Read at least your novel's length. If you can, double that. Replace those old words kicking around your skull with new ones. It's always recommended that writers read, because reading is one of our best teachers (and an excellent way to find out more about ourselves, our writing style, and new tricks to write better). Depending on how fast you read, you can get out editing quickly—and when paired with being active and waiting until you've stopped foaming at the mouth, you'll do just fine. You really do have to find what works for you, and sometimes that takes trial and error.
The other option, of course, is to pay someone to edit for you. You'll still have to do a little bit of work, like accepting or declining changes, but you can do that over a cup of coffee and you won't have to rip your hair out wondering if you missed anything.
With that said, how long do you shelf a novel before going back to it? What methods do you find effective for refreshing your brain so you can pull out that old draft and brave those dusty sentences?