How to deal with revision fatigue

by | Sep 5, 2012 | Writing Advice | 59 comments

Author Jennifer Hubbard wrote recently about one of the most difficult parts of writing a novel:

There comes a point in the writing of every book where I become sick of the book. 

Actually, that’s a lie. There’s usually more than one such point per book, and they usually come near the end of a round of revisions. Come to think of it, it happened with my short stories, too. That’s how I knew I was done: when I could think of nothing else to do to the story, and I had been through every word of it so many times that the words were in danger of stale meaninglessness.

I’ve experienced this myself. There comes a point when you think the book is a colossal, irredeemable mess and you can’t for the life of you figure out if it’s actually any good or not.

The best way to deal with revision fatigue is to trust in your heart that it’s a very useful and necessary feeling: what better time to turn a critical eye on your book than when you think it is an affront to humanity?

The good news is, as Jennifer says, it means you’re almost done (at least for now). The danger is getting discouraged by your fatigue and just calling your work finished and turning it in before you’ve given yourself some time to utilize that fatigue. It can be demoralizing, after all that time and effort, to revisit your work and be unsure of what it was all for.

Just know that the feeling will pass and instead let yourself simmer in it for a while. Power through and keep working. You’ll be glad you did later.

What about you? Do you experience revision fatigue? And how do you deal with it?

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59 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Heck, yeah. Soldiering on through revision fatigue is what separates the writers from the dabblers.

    Reply
  2. Corinne

    OMG yes! I am in the throes of revision fatigue at this very moment, and it is all I can do to fight through it again every day. The end is near, I can feel it. But damn if it isn't a struggle getting there.

    Reply
  3. Yolanda Renee

    "There comes a point when you think the book is a colossal, irredeemable mess and you can't for the life of you figure out if it's actually any good or not."

    So true, that's when I walk away, pretend I'll never look at it again, do something else, and then … there I am, and there … it's done.

    All part of the process, the blood, sweat, and tears….

    Reply
  4. Rebecca Enzor

    I'm dealing with it right now, but I'm working through it (or trying to at least). Having a goal is helping in some ways, but also discouraging in others because I don't feel like I can't take a minute to myself to re-coup. I'll make it though. It will all be worth it eventually.

    Reply
  5. Jaimie

    I like editing more than writing, so I don't often feel revision fatigue per se. I do have moments when I really think my novel sucks, though, but that feels like a different phenomena — and usually that's a sign of writer's block, and I'm doing something wrong, and I use the apathy to kill ALL the darlings!, because I might as well throw the whole MS out the window anyway. I guess this is sort of what you're talking about.

    Reply
  6. Mr. D

    I wouldn't call it "fatigue" but I do take breaks from a book to work on other books. But I don't lose sight of the fact that taking a break from revisions does not mean the book is finished.

    Because one of the many things I have learned is that a book is NOT completed until it's published. Which means one of my four novels is completed at this time.

    And the other three? Well, back to revisions!

    Reply
  7. Matthew J. Beier

    This was the most difficult part of the publication process for me. I dealt with it by, as Anonymous said, "soldiering through." It was the most grueling experience of my life to date, but it paid off.

    I'm in the middle of revisions on my second novel, and the process is like chipping away at at a brick wall with a fork. That said….it is improving, slowly but surely.

    A few things I do to deal with this process: Exercise, Netflix, and socializing–just enough to get out of my own head. Then, when I return to the book, I read it through and figure out where it is tripping me up. Once I identify the bumps, I try to find workarounds that help smooth them out. When I can read through the whole book without wanting to put it down, I know I've done my best.

    Reply
  8. D.G. Hudson

    Revisions are one of those things that are important for development as a writer, but yes, the same old same old gets tiring.

    Tips: I try to work on the scenes first, it gets me back into the story and tells me which scenes don't work. After that, I tackle narrative. This works for me, as the job seems less daunting when I tackle it in smaller pieces.

    Reply
  9. M.R. Merrick

    Absolutely. I'm usually in love with what I'm doing the first draft. There are no rules, just words. The second draft is usually a back and forth between love and hate. The third draft is spent mostly wondering "why bother?" When I get to that point, that's where I pull my critique partners in. This gives me a break away from the book and more often than not, it revitalizes the passion when they return with their comments. Then I do another run through and send it to editors for further improvement.

    Reply
  10. F.T. Bradley

    I was there yesterday 🙂 I usually take a step back, do something fun, and then come back to it.

    Reply
  11. featherpenstartandreams

    Talk about timing! I'm experiencing this right now. I know I need to forge my way through and do them, I just am tired of looking at the story. Thanks for the reminder about getting through it. I know it will be worth it in the end it I give the story my all before sending it out into the world for all to see.

    Thanks, Nathan.

    Melanie

    Reply
  12. Rick Daley

    Anything goes in a first draft. Anything can go in revisions.

    I think the free-for-all that is a first draft is liberating. Even though I outline, nuances come through in the act of writing that can't be summarized in advance, they need to be written in full. That part is fun, because there are no real limits.

    Then, in revisions, I second-guess every decision of plot, character, and word choice, trying to decide what to keep and what darlings to slay.

    But a part of me likes that judicial process. I just try to keep aware of the point where continual revisions no longer make things better, they just make things different. The worst fatigue sets in when I miss that barrier and spend weeks on meaningless tweaks.

    Reply
  13. Jing-Jing Lee

    I'm revising my MS now to prepare it for publication. Even with the book accepted, I would still prefer to do anything BUT look at it again (taking care of the TV and computer cables, arranging the spice and tea cupboard, etc.). I peeked at the first page yesterday night and had to fight the urge not to change everything. Reading this, and the comments below, makes me feel quite sane again. Thanks!

    Reply
  14. Yoly

    My revision fatigue is from watching (and listening about) my friend who is on about his 15th revision of his novel. I thought it was really there about #3, but he just keeps going over it. I'm ready to scream

    Reply
  15. A.R. Williams

    Yes, I've definitely been there. There's always that point where I hate whatever I'm working on. I've read it for the thousandth time, rewritten sentences, moved them around, modified, snipped, and cut. And I just get tired of looking at the thing and dealing with it "one" more time.

    My solution:

    I think it's good to take a break. Step away from the work for awhile and work on something else. If I'm submitting to magazines I may just send it in and forget about it until it makes its way through slush.

    That gives me enough time to work on other stuff without having to think about the story in question. If I'm self-publishing it, the folder gets moved off the desktop and back into the documents folder until I'm once again ready to tackle revision.

    Reply
  16. Lene Dybdahl

    Yes! I dislike the editing process. Usually I find courage in the fact that it will soon be over and I will have a printed copy in my hand. My editor is also very persistent so she drives me on when I'm down, I guess 🙂

    Reply
  17. Mirka Breen

    Revision Fatigue… This is where editors (not hired by you) are invaluable. Just when you think you can't. Anymore. Done with it.—
    The good editor breathes life into the process, with insight and suggestions. And if they are good at what they do, also with some pats-on-the-back interspaced between the hard reality posts.
    Editors and CPs are the secret weapon of revision.

    Reply
  18. Darley

    Sometimes you have no choice but to push yourself, especially if you're under a deadline. But reading and rereading can definitely dull the senses. And it does seem (sometimes) that the words have no meaning any longer.

    But if you haven't seen the sun in a few days, maybe it's time to step away from the manuscript.

    Reply
  19. Carissa Andrews

    I've been in this realm for what feels like forever. For a while, I even had to let it sit. Walk away completely so my brain could recharge. Right now, I'm a third of the way through with (hopefully) final edits before releasing it to the wild, i.e. agents.

    I'm glad to know it's normal to despise your book for a while and wonder why the heck I'm bothering. Heehee…

    Reply
  20. Adriana Ryan

    Wonderful post. I'm going through it right now. I want to chuck the whole thing out the window and hope my neighbor's dog eats it. But then I think of how much I loved it when it was still a brand new, fresh, sweet-smelling idea squalling to be put on paper, and I resist. I know that idea is still in here somewhere.

    Reply
  21. Roger Floyd

    I haven't got the faintest idea what you're talking about.
    I've been working on a trilogy of sci-fi books for over ten years now and not once have I felt that it was a waste of time, or that the books were "crap" or anything of the sort. I've always enjoyed working on them, and even when I'm working on other things like short stories or reading other works, I can't wait to get back to the novel. If that makes me weird or crazy or stupid, then so be it. On the other hand, my books may be total horse manure too. Maybe that's why they've never attracted an agent or publisher.

    Reply
  22. Kim Batchelor

    I've written five novels and I miss them when I finally say it's time to move on. I'm bringing a couple back to work on and I'm very happy to be back in those worlds. So, no, I never get sick of my writing. If I need a break for a while, I take a break, but usually just a very short one.

    Reply
  23. Cheryl

    I bet every writer gets tired of their work at some point. During the revision for myself stage, I lay it aside and work on something else for several weeks. But when it's to the copy editing and then the line editing and then the galley stage, it's hard to concentrate! I can really get sick of those asinine, whining, clueless characters!

    Reply
  24. Cynthia Washburn

    I think it's best to take a break for at least a week or so or there is a danger that you will edit the life out of your book. At least keep a copy in a file somewhere before you start chopping.

    Reply
  25. Anonymous

    The only time I ever experience this is when I have a pedantic copy editor. In some cases, pedantic copy editors can be wonderful. But sometimes they can really drag things out that are not important to the book in any way.

    Reply
  26. Monica Davis

    Wow, thanks for posting this today of all days, Nathan! I'm experiencing serious revision fatigue right now, so I decided to surf the net instead of facing the inevitable…and this is where I ended up! LOL…go figure! Guess the universe is telling me to suck it up and get on with it…the manuscript won't revise itself. 😉

    Reply
  27. Anonymous

    I edited and edited, waking up in the middle of the night with some brilliant idea, then after a year, I was so dissatisfied with the whole thing that I began chopping and rewriting it. Now I love it, but don't trust myself to love it, so am looking for an honest-to-gosh, professional editor. While all this feels a bit schizophrenic, I have come away deeply believing in this story. And I still love it. But boy, I am sick of it!–Sharon

    Reply
  28. Kristin Laughtin

    I just finished a round of revisions on one book and have the opposite of revision fatigue: I wish there were more to read still (without starting a new round from the beginning).

    I've got another book that I'll be doing a second round of revisions on soon. That one was difficult to write, and I already know my beta has left me another novel in revision notes. That's given me fatigue before I've even started. The only thing that will keep me going is the shame of leaving it in such a mess.

    Reply
  29. Elizabeth Winthrop

    I actually love revision most of the time. The words are there waiting. I just have to chop a lot and rearrange. At least, I don't have to create them. That said, when I do get tired, I put the book away and go do something that doesn't involve words.

    Reply
  30. Princess Sara

    I didn't get revision fatigue. Just being able to compare the before and after (and see just how drastically improved my MS was) was invigorating, and more than made up for all the frustrations and beta reader criticism.

    First draft fatigue, on the other hand…oy. My perfectionist soul hates first drafts with a passion.

    Reply
  31. Caroline Starr Rose

    I suffer from first draft terrors. If I can power through it, I know all will be well…eventually.

    Reply
  32. EMK211

    Revision fatigue sucks. The last revision that I did I hired a freelance editor to look over the manuscript. Her points and the forced break from the manuscript gave me the inspiration that I needed to get my head back in the game. I will definitely do it again. And again. And again. Worth every penny.

    Reply
  33. Shannon

    When I get sick of a book that I am writing I just stop working on it. Not forever – but for awhile – and usually I just spend the time working on something else. My method isn't a good one for anyone that wants to write and publish on a regular schedule though, since I can go YEARS before getting back to something. The good part is that I always have something half or more finished to turn to when I feel sick of any particular work. Usually after a break of a year or two I come back to the discarded work to find that I'm pretty happy with it. I have a nearly finished novel right now that I'm feeling an aversion to working on. I don't really mind revision in and of itself, though. Sometimes it can be easier and more fun than starting from scratch.

    Reply
  34. Jennifer R. Hubbard

    Thanks for linking, Nathan, and to all the commenters for sharing their experience. Though this fatigue is not my favorite feeling in the world, I've come to accept that it's normal (and, apparently, common!).

    Two things keep me going: seeing that the finish line is so close; and reminding myself of what I liked about the story in the first place.

    Reply
  35. Julie Musil

    This post really spoke to me! Thanks so much 🙂

    Reply
  36. Nancy Kelley

    I was just assured my book is not actually "an affront to humanity," but I'm not convinced. I guess it's time to push through the last stages of revision and then take a well-deserved break.

    Thanks for the post, Nathan. I needed the reminder that this is normal.

    Reply
  37. L. V. Gaudet

    When I hit that point where it's started to seem like the whole thing is irredeemable garbage, that's when I tend to send it to the slush/trash pile indefinately. I worry enough about others hating it when I think it's not half bad (or downright like it).

    Reply
  38. JOHN T. SHEA

    ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…Fatigue? What fatigue? ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…And great idea, Jing-Jing Lee! I'm going to rearrange my spice and tea cupboard too…when I wake up…sometime next week…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…

    Reply
  39. Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado

    I am in the midst of (another) revision now… and yes, some days I say to myself, this is getting goo-oo-ood. And the next day I know it is nowhere near ready. But WHAT is it missing?. That's when I dig out my dog-eared copy of the short story A Gravestone of Wheat by Wll Weaver. I read those 14 perfect pages, wipe away my tears and I say to myself… "See Do-do Bird… that's WHAT you're supposed to do!

    Reply
  40. Annie Tietje

    I'm totally there right now. And I've done the the wrong thing of putting down my novel and not looking at it. For about a month. But this post has helped move the little voice in my head saying "go back, don't stop working on this, it's really good" to become more of a shout. Thanks Nathan, you're words of wisdom almost always inspire me to go back to the keyboard. ^_^

    Reply
  41. Scribble Orca

    Love-hate relationship with revision. So far it involves tearing out chunks of superfluous text and going over. Every. Single. Word. and then finding the typos in the new inserts, and tidying those up, and….and…and….

    However, the light at the end of the tunnel is when I wake up the following morning and the tingle up my spine tells me it really does read better.

    Reply
  42. Seabrooke

    I don't really suffer revision fatigue until I've done several rounds of revision and have reached the point of nitpicking, and for me it's my cue to wrap it up, send it out into the agentsphere to live or die, and get started on my next project.

    Reply
  43. Tonya

    This is spot on! I've stuck for about a month. Unable to move past the rewritten climax of my novel. I wrote the following chapter; it was rushed and I hated it and I've been stuck ever since. However, I continue to draft notes as I still hear my characters chattering in my head. For some reason, I just can't seem to settle down and work it in. I just so want to finish it though. However, I know not to rush it again.

    Reply
  44. G. B. Miller

    It hasn't been too too bad for me. Revision fatigue usually kicks in after the 3rd draft.

    What usually works for me is to step away from the headache and work on something else for a while.

    Reply
  45. Anonymous

    This is off topic. But I'd love to know where you get your photos for the blog. The sites I find that are legal don't offer the best photos.

    Reply
  46. Nathan Bransford

    anon-

    I get most of them from Wikimedia Commons. All the ones I use are in the public domain.

    Reply
  47. Mira

    Nice post by Jennifer, and a good topic.

    I'm like Princess Sara and Caroline Starr Rose, first drafts are scary for me.

    But I LOVE to edit. I love reading a sentence a million times and polishing it until it's just right. I love to tweak. So fun.

    Although, I can eventually get tired of it, but if I give it a break for a couple of days, I enjoy tweaking it again.

    One place I do get fatigued is when I'm trying to be funny. After I've read a sentence I thought was funny about 50 times, it stops being funny at all, and I wonder if I was crazy to think it was. I've learned to trust that if I once thought it was funny, readers might also, but it gets really tricky trying to edit something that no longer feels funny to me. I've learned to definitely take time off from that, to get perspective again.

    Reply
  48. Liz Hollar

    Oh man. I am so there. Thanks for the reminder that perhaps in a couple months that manuscript won't feel as if it's the worst thing ever written.

    Reply
  49. Laila Kanon

    I suppose to do some round of revision, but I'm ignoring it right now. I know what I need to do … I know what I must do, but hang on, it's been awhile since I bake that cake that I like so much …

    Reply
  50. David Jón Fuller

    That feeling that it's all going to suck can help prevent you from trying to submit it too early — and like you say, turn a critical eye to it as you rewrite. That feeling also doesn't necessarily hold up, either, when you finish the draft and go back to re-read it — usually there's a lot of great stuff and the parts that are crap are easier to cut… and then you start getting excited about how much better the current draft is than you expected.

    Reply
  51. Annalise Green

    I'm not sure that I have any method for dealing with it other than remembering that book fatigue does not necessarily represent the quality of the book. If it weren't for posts like these, which remind me that it's a normal part of the process, I'm pretty sure I would quite entirely. So thanks!

    Reply
  52. Donna Hole

    Finishing that first novel was like this for me. I hated it and was ready to toss it all in the trash. I got some good feed back, fixed what I could, queried it some, and moved on.

    Thanks for the pep talk Nathan.

    ……..dhole

    Reply
  53. Whirlochre

    Just spent the last four days editing my comment and now I'm in traction.

    Back soon..

    Reply
  54. Mira

    Btw, I love that picture. She looks so comfy and cozy. Makes me want to take a nap! 🙂

    Reply
  55. Deborah Niemann

    Thankfully that does not happen to me until I'm doing a rewrite requested by my editor. And she very firmly tells me that the book is NOT a complete mess, and I don't need to start over!

    Reply
  56. Susan Sundwall

    How did I find this just when I needed it? Book coming out, nervous wreck, how could anybody like a book that I'm so sick of? Glad – so glad – I'm normal.

    Reply
  57. JustSarah

    For me, a lot of it is after I write the synopsis first, I still somehow feel the story is complete, even when I know its only a synopsis, and not the novel.

    I have a hard time taking: George and Herman walked to school, to –

    George and Herman were walked to school, when a evil bird pooped on their head.

    Reply
  58. Trisha

    I'll totally admit that I suffer revision fatigue. But what I tend to do is what you seem to be advising against – leave my fatigued work and move onto something else for a while. I guess it's not too bad 'cause I always have multiple projects on the go. I always come back to the one I was sick of in the end, though. 😉 And also, I'm unpublished and my only deadlines are the ones I set myself, so that's the easy part for me too.

    Reply

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