I’ve read a lot of posts on other writing blogs – some of them excellent – on how vitally important it is to keep polishing work prior to submission to agents and publishers, or prior to publication if you are self-publishing. The underlying message is that however ready you might think your work is, the chances are it isn’t ready yet.
All of which is well and good, but there does come a point when tinkering is only going to make the writing worse. The trick is to know when that point is.
I think the answer is somewhat complex, as there are so many levels on which writing needs to be polished – story, characters and dialogue for starters. That’s before getting into the really detailed edit of making sure it reads well, eliminating unnecessary words and repetition, making sure adjectives are used not too much or little, eliminating adverbs except where they serve an important purpose, grammar, punctuation, etc.
The only answer I can offer is that a novel can never be perfect. The trick is to get it as close to perfection as you possibly can without going insane. Then it has to be submitted or released, regardless of what overlooked warts remain. In some cases these can be corrected subsequently (for instance, one can upload revised text to online versions), but in the end you have to move on.
Before reaching this point however, there are two very obvious things to do when you can’t see the wood for the trees. One is to get feedback from trusted people. The other is to allow a period of time to pass before you pick up your work again. I find the latter method in particular to be very effective, as the distance of time provides perspective and you can redraft with a fresh eye. Of course, the downside to this is that you cannot expect to write a novel and release it within a short space of time. You have to be prepared for your novel to sit on the shelf, perhaps for years, waiting for the moment it is finally ready for release.
I have several novels – some of which were written over ten years ago – waiting for that moment when I will be happy to finally let go of them. Others I have turned around in a relatively short space of time, simply because experience has taught me not to make the mistakes I made ten years ago that necessitated holding back my work. But if a novel simply isn’t ready, it is always better to hang on to it until the right time – whether you’ve worked on it for six months or six years.
There does come a time though, when all rewriting must end and a book must either be released or abandoned, regardless of the inevitable imperfections that remain.