Revision: When is it good enough? Finished or abandoned?

How do you know when you’re done revising a poem, essay, or novel?

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” He obviously wasn’t completely satisfied with the final product.

French poet Paul Valery concurred by saying, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

Such is the case for many works of art, from paintings to novels. In fact, my pastor says the same thing about sermons.

I’m guessing that Leonardo might be the only one discontented with his own results. The rest of the world seems to love them.

Along those lines, how do you feel about the revision process? Not many writers can claim that the first words they slap onto a piece of paper (or computer document) are the same arrangement of words they end up with.

As author Liz Tolsma said, “Sometimes the characters change on me. As I read the story, I learn more about them, and some of the things that I thought I knew about them before I started shift. As the book progresses, I get to know them even better. The most fun part is when they surprise me by doing something completely unexpected. It’s what I love most about writing.”

Thus, writing is also a Journey of Discovery. This is especially true for Pantsers.

Yes, I said Pantsers. If you’re not a novelist, you might not have heard this term. I didn’t make it up. It’s real.

There are two ways to tackle writing a novel: as an Outliner or a Pantser.

Outliners have their entire plot planned out ahead of time, scene by scene.

Pantsers may have a general direction for their story but nothing concrete. As they write, they fly–or write–by the seat of their pants. Thus, Pantsers.

Some novelists are a mixture of both. There are pros and cons to each. The Outliner is organized and sees the whole story at the outset. But he might lack flexibility and miss some fun surprises along the way.

The Pantser has no clear vision but enjoys the ride, and is willing to go where his characters take him. He discovers as he writes, but may end up with inconsistencies and disjointed scenes.

But whether an Outliner or a Pantser, both have to revise. And revise and revise and revise. The revision process fine-tunes the story, smooths everything out, pulls it all together.

Here’s what often happens with my essay and story writing students:

    • Rough draft has the basic elements but is too vague. I call this the Bare Bones.
    • 2nd draft fleshes it out with more developed scenes/anecdotes, details, stronger word choices, and sensory images. But often to excess. This is the fat and flabby stage.
    • 3rd draft tightens it all up–keeps the strongest parts, cuts the fluff and repetition. This is like going to the gym and working out. Building muscle. Cutting fat.
  • 4th draft edits make everything sharp with correct Grammar, Usage, Mechanics (punctuation & capitalization), and Spelling (GUMS). This is like showering and putting on your best clothes after the gym workout. You’re ready to be seen in public. You smell good, too.

Of course, this is just the basic process. In reality, it’s a bit different for everyone. The 2nd and 3rd draft steps above could actually involve several drafts each.

Learn how two authors, Liz Tolsma and Barbara Britton, handle revision in their novels.

1.   How many drafts do you do before you get to the final manuscript?

Liz: I will usually have three to four drafts before the final manuscript. The first time is my rough draft. The second time through, I incorporate all my critique partners’ advice. By the third time, I’m looking for the small details like word choice, grammar, and punctuation, and finally, I try to read it aloud for flow.

Barb: I usually do about 4 drafts of a novel. I write the story long hand on a notepad. I type it into the computer and do some editing as I type. I review the previous chapters before I keep going on my story. Then I do a complete edit from start to finish. I will read it out loud and look for research consistencies, too. This is all done before I start edits with my publisher.

2. How much do you enjoy and embrace the process? Or is it something you put up with in order to have a great end-product?

Liz: I LOVE the rough draft process. I’m always surprised by what happens, and that’s fun. By the fourth time through, I’m pretty much done with it. That’s the point when I send it to my publisher. That usually gives me a month or so until the edits come back. By then, I can look at it with fresh eyes, and I’m ready to dive back in.

Barb: I embrace my process. I feel comfortable with how I put my stories together. It’s worked so far!

3. What would you have gained or lost by not going through the revision process and (possibly) multiple drafts?

Liz: If I didn’t go through the revision process, the manuscript would be a mess! I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, so I don’t do any plotting. When I sit down, I have very little idea of where the story is going. It changes along the way, so on my revisions, I have to go back and make the manuscript work together as a whole.

Barb: Readers will let you know if you have done something wrong, so if you put time into editing, your story will resonate much better with readers. Errors pull readers out of the story. I also like to tweak scenes and make them stronger during revision.

4. At what point do you stop tweaking/editing? Do you consider your work finished or abandoned?

Liz: When I just can’t stand to look at it any more, that’s when I stop. I never read my books after they’re published, because I know I would find things I want to change! As an author and an editor, your work is never truly done! Sometimes, though, you just have to say you’ve done all you can and it is what it is.

Barb: After I go through the steps above, I am confident to send it to my publisher. I also have friends read the manuscript and make comments on things I might have missed. My character attributes need to be consistent and my research needs to be accurate.

Every author is different, but when I’m done editing, I am happy with my manuscript. You can tweak a manuscript forever. I find after several passes at editing, I am happy to let my work go. Otherwise, one grows weary of the characters and plot.


Do you embrace or dread the revision process? Is it an enjoyable process of discovery or a pain?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


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24 thoughts on “Revision: When is it good enough? Finished or abandoned?

  1. Good stuff here! I remember I was shocked when I heard that Liz was a panster. “Snow on the Tulips” was smooth and cohesive and everything else that would indicate a lot of planning. I appreciate Barbara’s comment that character attributes need to be consistent. So true, but it takes vigilance to get to know your characters!

    I revise and edit and tweak my manuscripts to an inch of their lives. Very necessary, because my early drafts are most definitely the “fat and flabby” you referred to!

  2. I believe I must be a pantser at heart. I have never written a novel, never will, but I do enjoy the writing process of going from a general goal to filling in the details, to a final flowing, glowing product….. Having things become more focused and clearer from better word choice, etc. But I was thinking of how I love the editing process in gardening, quilting, and crafting.

    My mom was a formal gardener…have it all planned out type of flower gardener – an outliner. I am definitely not my mother’s daughter in that respect. I love the “changeableness” of a perennial garden. Knowing that I can always move a plant to a new location if the color or height or shape doesn’t work where I first put it. Plants definitely have “minds of their own” and strong character qualities which force you into doing their bidding, but as a painter with a palette or a writer with keyboard and delete button, you as a gardener have the “final” say so… (As long as you keep going and don’t abandon it – then it definitely will take over.)

    I do the same with a quilt or craft. I never take a ready-made pattern and follow it to the end. I always change it and make it my own. It takes longer, but it is worth it in the end. ( Although I have had some disasters which end up in the garbage). So… Yes, I do enjoy editing and revision!

    1. Beth, I’m so glad to see this pantsing/outlining concept applied to gardening, quilting, and crafting–not just novels. Thanks for tying that in! It’s great how you make your garden and quilts an expression of your own personality.

      I’d love to hear how other readers see themselves–as pantsers or outliners–whether it’s writing, sewing, cooking, gardening, or whatever.

      Feel free to ask Barb or Liz questions, too!

  3. Liz and Barb,

    Thank you for sharing your processes here. Like any piece of fine art, a well-polished piece looks as if no effort was put into it at all. Your posts, however, show that good work does not just happen!!

    1. Hi Brad,
      You’re welcome. I wish “good work” came easily. Revisions and editing are part of the writing process. I’m thankful for beta-readers and people who like to read every sentence and ponder it. By the time I am done with a story, I don’t want to go over it again.

  4. I guess I don’t really think of liking or disliking the editing process. I see it all as writing. Sometimes I do get tired of not being able to “get it right,” though–when you’ve put hours and hours and hundreds of drafts in, and it apparently still doesn’t work.
    My husband asks me why I don’t set this one aside and work on the next one. My answer? If I’ve made mistakes in writing this one, I don’t want to make the same mistakes in the next one.

    I love Barb’s comment about readers noticing mistakes. The truth of that haunts me. We read one author’s series about four women going out West. My girls loved the stories–until they got to the last book. Each book was about a different woman, but each of the previous characters showed up in the following books. Unfortunately by the fourth book, the author must have been tired. As she represented the back story of the earlier books, she mixed up all the characters, having them married to the wrong guy, the history of one now assigned to the other… Ten years later, my kids still talk about how frustrated they are with that author. Yet as a writer, I know how easy it is to start missing details like that if I don’t edit well.

    On the other hand, sometimes I feel like my editing and rewriting can suck the life out of a piece. You started this post with a picture of the Mona Lisa. I discovered recently that when da Vinci painted her, he gave her thick eyebrows! But sometime before 1620, someone decided to clean the painting and accidentally wiped those eyebrows off. (layers of oil done at different times can apparently be “leveled down.”) When professionals recently scanned the painting with xrays, they discovered the earlier strokes of the eyebrows. (Personally, I think we should paint them back on 😉 )
    So, like the Mona Lisa, sometimes I’m afraid all my editing and “cleaning” just leaves people scratching their heads, saying, “It’s nice, but why aren’t there eyebrows?”

    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      Thanks for commenting. I think you are dealing with two issues here. One is completing a manuscript and putting in the time to make it as good as you can possibly make it. Then, you pass off your novel to an editor to make it shine. A mistake or two may get through the editing process, but it will be minor, not something that changes a story.

      The author who changed who her characters were married to, couldn’t have had a good editor. Some writers use “Book Bibles” to keep track of all the details surrounding their characters. They don’t want the blond to suddenly be brunette. Readers will notice the change because they are invested in your characters.

      Good writing is done in community. Grab a critique partner and solicit beta readers to catch little mistakes…and big ones. I’ve done the above, and still have a few mistakes in my earlier books, but the overall story is sound.

      Stay in the game! Finishing your novel is worth it.

      1. Thanks for your encouragement, Barbara. Good to know about the editor. Sometimes I want to do that job of editor for published authors. (Free books 😉 ) And yes, my kids have noticed the blond/brunette thing. (It’s great having them as my beta readers ’cause they’re so observant!)

        Thankful for my writing community!

    2. Elizabeth, I never heard that about the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows. I wonder what Leonardo would think about the thinner ones.:)

      You’re right, you want to avoid making the same mistakes in the next story. But sometimes it’s helpful to just take a break from the one that plagues you and work on something fresh before going back to it.

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