Updated May 19, 2020
Finishing a first draft is a major milestone. And while editing your own work can be a grueling process, it feels good knowing you’ve completed something and you’re one step closer to publication. But writers are so eager to finally finish the damn thing that they jump right into editing. Take it from me: that’s a big mistake. So here’s one of the most important self-editing tips you’ll ever learn: let your story rest.
On the same token, if you’ve got a manuscript sitting in a drawer or file folder that you haven’t touched in weeks or months, that’s a good thing. But I know what you’re probably thinking: “No, that’s not good! I have to get this thing done!”
I know it’s frustrating. I know guilt or self-doubt is probably eating you up. But the rest period is essential for polishing your story. Here are just a few reasons why you should step away from your story and let it gather a little dust.
Good stories are like good chicken
Y’all may not know this about me, but I really like to cook. (Bear with me, now; I promise there’s a point.)
One of my best dishes is my baked Cajun chicken. One of the secrets to making succulent baked chicken is to let it rest after cooking. Take it out of the oven, cover it with tin foil, and let it sit for five to ten minutes before serving.
I don’t know the exact science behind it, but letting the chicken rest helps it better absorb all that juicy, buttery goodness.
If you cut into the chicken the moment you take it out of the oven, the juices will drain right out, and you’ll be stuck with dry chicken.
And nobody likes dry chicken. (Especially not us Southerners.)
Let your story rest
You’re a writer. You understand how analogies work, so I’m not going to say, “Treat your story like good chicken,” and leave it at that, because that’s not very helpful.
Instead, I want to troubleshoot this idea so you know why you should let your story rest, and what you can do in the meantime.
Why should I let my story rest?
I’ll sum it up in reader-friendly bullet points for ya:
- You’ll recognize plot devices/points that aren’t working.
- It’ll reset your focus and creative energy.
- You’ll revise and rewrite with fresh eyes.
- It’ll give you time to focus on secondary elements of storytelling, like researching.
- You can step away from your laptop for awhile. Hooray!
How long should I let my story rest?
However long you need to, but at least 24 hours. The longer the project, the longer the rest period should be. Play around with it and see what works best for your process.
If you’re working on a novel or a creative project with several parts, like a short story collection, feel free to rotate those chapters or stories. While one is resting, start editing another one. Then let that one rest, and come back to the first.
The key word here is rest. Don’t take the chicken out of the oven and forget about it. No one likes cold chicken. And if you let it sit for way too long, it’ll start to grow mold, and you won’t want to touch it even with gloves on.
The ideal resting period is different for every writer and every project, so this may take some trial-and-error.
What should I do while I wait?
Anything you want!
If you want to maintain a regular writing habit, work on a different creative project. (If you’re anything like me, you have several going at once. Probably too many.)
Or, you can read works in your project’s genre — novels, stories, plays, etc. that are similar to what you’re writing.
You can also work on your weaknesses. If you know dialogue isn’t your strong suit, study how real people speak. Need help with grammar or mechanics? Take a free online course. And the list goes on.
Can I work on my story while it’s resting?
Yes — and no.
Feel free to continue researching, plotting, outlining, building characters and worlds, etc. (This is especially helpful if you’re a pantser or a plantser who writes first and plans later.) But don’t cut into the meat of the story right after you finish cooking it.
In other words, you can still work on the secondary stuff — but don’t even so much as glance at the actual draft until the resting period is over.
If you don’t want to stop writing, try a few character-building writing exercises.
Can I ask beta readers for feedback while my story is resting?
Absolutely! In fact, you should, and the resting period is the perfect time to do it. Beta readers can provide fresh perspectives on your work and even some helpful self-editing tips.
Let’s go back to the chicken analogy. If you cooked a chicken dinner for a big group of friends, would you serve the chicken to them without tasting it first?
Or, perhaps a more relevant question: would you serve it without asking one of your dinner guests to taste-test it first to make sure they think it’s good?
Writers are perfectionists. We’ll write a draft, then immediately pick it apart until there’s nothing left but bones. Then we’ll kick ourselves for being “bad” writers — all because we didn’t want to step away from our story for a little while.
(I should know; I’ve done this too many times to count.)
Do yourself a favor: shove that first draft into a drawer and let it sit while you take a much-needed break. Goodness knows you deserve it (and so does your manuscript). Any list of self-editing tips should feature “taking a break” at the very top. It’s so important for resetting your focus, momentum, and creative energy. It also provides the clarity you need to polish your story.
Do you let your creative projects rest before you start editing? Share your wisdom in the comments! Or on social. You know the drill.
Another fantastic post. It’s so hard to stay away from a story once it is finished. You want to make it as best as it can be. But reading this has reminded me that taking a break is not only helpful, but productive. A writer’s work is never done – but it can be better spent on more than one project at once. Great post!
Thanks so much, Emma! And yes, I wrote this as sort a note to self. I will pick at a first draft as soon as I’m finished writing it. Cue creative overload. I get so caught up in making stories perfect before they’re even finished, to the point where I never finish many of them! Perfectionism kills creativity, so I rarely wanted to remind myself and my fellow writers that it’s okay to step back.