How Do You Know When to Stop Revising?

Bryan Furuness and Sarah Layden

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 159.

The editors we interviewed for our book, The Invisible Art of Literary Editing, published by Bloomsbury Academic earlier this month, discussed the collaborative nature of their jobs: They help writers produce stronger, clearer work through an editorial conversation with those writers. Before a piece of writing lands in an editor’s inbox, however, the writer is in conversation with herself. We found ourselves imagining that inner dialogue and how we might answer the questions on her mind as she nears the final stages of a writing project.

How do you know when you’re done? 
If you have to ask, part of you knows you’re not done.

But what if the project is done? I’m worried about over-revising.
You’re probably worried about the wrong thing. For every writer who sticks with a project too long, there are ninety-nine writers who submit a piece before it’s ready. Any editor will tell you that half-baked submissions are more common than over-revised manuscripts.

But I want to be done. Can I be done now?
Interrogate your motives. Do you believe this project is finished, or are you just in a hurry to publish? (A confession from the people writing these answers: We wish our own answers were always, Yes, we’re done and No, we’re not in a hurry to publish; but that’s never the case. The best we can hope for is, Yes, we believe we’re done and Yes, we are in a hurry to publish. We’re not proud of this mindset, but let’s acknowledge the ever-increasing pressure in the writing world to publish frequently and widely. Read the contributors’ notes in a magazine and tell us it doesn’t feel like an arms race. We hate this pressure, every writer we know hates this pressure, and yet we all keep playing this numbers game, because we don’t trust anyone else to stop.)

So, about my original question...
If you have to ask, put the project aside for a while. “For as long as you can manage,” says Zadie Smith in “That Crafty Feeling,” her 2008 lecture to writing students at Columbia University, included in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin Press, 2009). “A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: You need to become its reader instead of its writer.” Once you make that transition—when you become your project’s reader—the answer to your question will probably be as obvious as the words on the page.

It will probably be obvious?
Not definitely, though. You could also give your project to some trusted outside readers and ask them if it’s ready for submission. But don’t trust them too much. They don’t know, either. Not really.

The internet says I’m done when my revisions start making the piece worse instead of better. That answer makes sense. Why can’t you be that straightforward?

That advice you got from the internet presumes that a writer is a good judge of her own work. Which is a funny thing to presume about the person who has the least critical distance from the manuscript. In our experience, writers are often the worst judges of their own material. The parts of our own work that tickle us most often turn out to be self-indulgent. 

Like using a Q&A format for an essay?
Stop distracting us from responding to your shitty internet advice, which also presumes that improvement happens in a linear way. The advice makes us picture a line graph: First the line goes up as changes make a manuscript better, then the line goes down as changes make it worse, forming a pyramid.

It would be cool if revision worked that way, but it doesn’t. Improvement is erratic, like the flight pattern of a butterfly. With each draft, you’ll make some good changes and some bad changes. But even if you make a bunch of bad changes and the overall project gets worse, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop revising, or revert to a previous draft. In fact, it might not mean anything. Your subsequent draft is as likely to be a breakthrough as it is to be a breakdown. You just don’t know.

Can I get a second opinion? 
Sure. When Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing (Knopf, 2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (Knopf, 2020), spoke at Butler University, she said something surprising about publishing her first book: She didn’t anticipate how sad she would be to be done with the project. “It felt kind of like I was missing a limb,” she said. 

So try this thought experiment: Imagine submitting your project to a publisher. What emotions rise to the surface? Your reaction may reveal something important.

Revise until sad? That’s your answer?
Look at it this way: To write creatively, you have to get comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt. Pitch a tent in the land of not-knowing. This is true not only while writing an essay, poem, or story, but during its submission and release to readers. This is true especially of books.

Whether you’ve let the project rest for three months or three years, whether the thought of sending it into the world fills you with sadness or relief or excitement, you won’t know if you’re done revising. Not definitively. And if you want to persist in the world of creative writing, you’ll have to make peace with that mystery.

In his craft book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (Random House, 2021), George Saunders writes, “We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs—or doesn’t—in that instant.” 

The more you know your work and your process, the more intuitive you will become as a writer and reviser. Which leads us to our final answer, the one we fall back on with every project, even this essay: You will feel the piece is done when you’ve made it as strong as you can, and you’re ready for an editor’s eye to spot what you can’t. Then you’ll be done revising. For now, anyway.


Bryan Furuness is the author of a couple of novels, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson (Black Lawrence Press, 2012) and Do Not Go On (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and the coauthor with Sarah Layden of The Invisible Art of Literary Editing (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023). Furuness lives in Indianapolis, teaches at Butler University, and believes that breakfast burritos are the perfect food. 

Sarah Layden is the author of the story collection Imagine Your Life Like This (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), the flash fiction chapbook The Story I Tell Myself About Myself (Sonder Press, 2018), and the novel Trip Through Your Wires (Engine Books, 2015). She is the coauthor with Bryan Furuness of The Invisible Art of Literary Editing (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023) and teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

Art: Taylor Grote