Stop Revising Before You Lose Your Essay (and Your Mind!)

In my opinion, revising is easier than writing. But that means revising is also more dangerous than writing. Because if you revise too long or too much, things get bad.

The key to revising well is knowing when to call it quits.

When I think about revising, I’m always put in mind of a young beginning reader who once told her teacher, “I know how to spell banana; I just don’t know when to stop.”

When we revise, we know the general direction we’re moving in. But it’s easy to get lost in the details. Just like the girl trying to spell the tropical fruit, we might stop for a minute and then have no idea how far we’ve gotten and how far we still need to go.

You have to look at your writing and say it's finished.

Sometimes that’s because there is a hard and fast deadline. You have no choice; the work has to be turned in, no matter how unpolished it may feel.

But even when you still have time before the deadline, or you have no deadline at all, it is vital that at some point you say, “That’s it,” and put down your pencil (or your mouse).

That’s because over-revising drains the energy from your writing and leaves you with something lifeless and flat, like bread made from over-kneaded dough.

To use another image, if you think of your writing as a fuzzy sweater, it’s easy to see how “picking” at it too much would cause it to lose its essence, and maybe even unravel completely.

You have to leave well enough alone. You have to let go of the idea of perfection. And to preserve the original momentum and inspiration of your writing. Here’s how.

Stop “Futzing”

In my family, we call aimless movement futzing. If you’re futzing around your house on a rainy Sunday afternoon, more power to you! But if you’re futzing around with your writing, you’ll drive yourself crazy.

So stop revising aimlessly. Stop rereading your work and tearing apart every sentence.Close the window and stop rewriting your first sentence over and over again.

Your writing—and everyone else’s—could always be better!

You could open almost any book, magazine, or newspaper and find shorter, snappier, more artful ways of expressing the thoughts you find there. But the difference between perfect and finished is that finished is an achievable goal.

Stop futzing around with your essay. Stop rereading that one section of your writing and picking at it. Stop revising for the sake of revising.

Ask “Why?”

If you feel in your gut that something has to change, ask yourself why. Be specific with your questions. Why isn’t that paragraph working? Why does that word have to change? Why does the introduction sound off? If you can’t answer the question “Why?” it’s time to leave that section alone.

Make a Goal

If there are places that really do need help--the ones that got your attention when you asked Why?”--don’t start working on them until you have a goal in mind.

Again, be explicit! Write down your goal. “Make it better” is not a goal. It’s too mushy. It’s too open-ended. How will you know when your writing is “better”?

A clear goal will be a condition you know you have met—no question! Clear goals might sound like, “Take out second-person pronouns,” “Make the metaphor in paragraph 3 match the one in paragraph 2,” or “Break the hook into two sentences.”

Here’s the gut-wrenching part. If you don’t have a clear goal, you don’t get to make a change. You might still feel deep down in your soul that something has to change. But unless you know what that is and what it should change to, leave it as is.  

The only exception to this merciless rule is if you will have time to leave and come back. If your deadline is far, far off, or if you don’t have a deadline, you do have the option of walking away from your writing at this point and returning when you have some distance.

Take a day or a week off and don’t even look at your writing. When you return to it, use these same principles. The time and distance might be what you needed to establish a clear goal for what you want to revise.  

Stop Sharing Your Work

Your writing is the way you express your thoughts. Anyone who reads it will of course have his or her own preferences and ideas. But it doesn’t matter. You call the shots.

So once the deadline is looming and you’re ready to call it done, don’t give your writing to anyone else for comments. If you’re going to stop revising, you have to make a commitment only to share your work with people who’ve made a solemn promise to focus only on helping your proofread (hopefully using the three-POV strategy).

If any readers take it upon themselves to give you unsolicited feedback, feel free to say, “Thanks for your feedback,” smile, and leave it at that.

Of course, if your readers can give you a compelling answer to Why? and a goal for the change, you may want to listen. The question is whether the reader giving you the advice is an expert in this area. You may choose to pass on your grandpa’s idea for your English essay, but you should take to heart what your guidance counselor says about your personal statement for your college application.

Seriously. Stop.

I know there is always more you could do to your writing. But if you lose focus and just change sentences without a purpose, you’ll do more harm than good.

Not only will you lose time and risk running afoul of your deadline, you’ll also start losing meaning. Your best sentences will unravel. Your writing will become a hodgepodge, lacking cohesion. You’ll end up spelling bananananananana.

There are no extra points given out for the amount of time you spent on your essay or the number of drafts you wrote.

Let go of the idea of perfect and send your writing out into the world thoughtful and finished.


Where do you get stuck in the revising process?

Where do you wish you had some guidance?

Post your answer in the comments below and I’ll offer suggestions!