How long after finishing a work in progress should you wait to pick it up again?
This is a question I’ve asked myself a dozen times despite the fact that it’s admittedly been a while since I finished a big writing project. (I define “big” as anything longer than 50,000 words). Part of me wants to know how long of a break I’m allowed to give myself between finishing and diving back in for edits (don’t tell me you can’t relate!). A different part of me likes the projects I’m working on and doesn’t want to totally burn out on them too soon.
Let’s be honest here: Writing is hard. Different writers struggle with different parts of the process — maybe you have no problem starting a project but just can’t seem to finish it. Maybe you’ve finished dozens of projects but don’t feel you have the confidence to do anything with them. Maybe you don’t struggle with coming up with ideas, but actually sitting down to get the writing done is way harder than you feel it should be.
Whatever your writing roadblock, this business is exhausting. If and when you do finish certain projects, you absolutely have the right to celebrate your victories no matter how small they may be. You have the right to take time off to give your brain a break. It’s kind of like a summer vacation. You’ve earned it.
Why should you consider taking a break from your project after you finish the first draft — whether you take a week off or a year?
From personal experience, I’ve found many benefits to this practice. I’ve saved myself a lot of humiliation and pain by learning to write blog posts in the evenings, leave them as drafts until the next morning, read them over again, and evaluate whether or not I need to rewrite some parts of them before scheduling them to be published.
Taking time away from something you’ve been working on constantly for many days in a row is especially helpful if you want to avoid what I’ll call “getting absolutely sick of the thing you’re working on and never wanting to look at it again.” We all know what it feels like when we’re finally done with something — great, but also, get this thing out of my face before I set it on fire. Setting it aside is for your benefit as much as it is for the future of your manuscript.
Separating yourself from your work for even a short period of time can help you roll back into it with a fresh perspective. It’s very easy to get so “into” a story or post that you don’t realize you might have worded something the wrong way or implied something you didn’t intend to imply.
“Breathing” also gives you the chance to really think about your story (without actually working on it) and make sure it’s everything you want it to be. You might dream up a new scene — could it somehow make your story as a whole stronger? You might come up with brand-new connections, ways to tie up loose ends (or fill in potential plot holes).
Most importantly, you might finish your draft totally ready to never look at it again … but by the time your break is over, you might actually be EXCITED to work on it again! You’ve missed it! You’ve missed your characters and the adventures they had and the things they learned. You might even look forward to spending time with them … even though even a single round of edits could mean major changes to their fictional lives.
So, breaks are great. They have the potential to reignite your motivation, help you view your narrative with a clearer head, and you’ll hopefully avoid “work still in progress” burnout. But how long of a break should you take? How short is too short? How long is too long?
Unfortunately, I can only recommend what I have found works for me: One month. I’ve found that this gives me enough time to focus on other projects and almost “forget” the details of the one I just finished working on. But I’m not away from it for so long that I completely lose interest.
It’s really up to you, though — maybe you can try different lengths of time and figure out what works best for you.
Technically, you can go about this any way that suits you. I would you should give yourself a week away at the very least, and a few months at the very most — too short of a break doesn’t give you enough time to forget your project, and the longer you wait, the less likely you are to jump willingly back into it. There are actually a few first drafts I just never went back to after finishing because by the time I thought about them again, I had already moved on.
I’d also recommend setting a “start date,” or a specific date you can put in your calendar that specifies when you are going to pick your project back up again. That way, you don’t have to even think about it in the meantime if you don’t want to. You could even start a whole new project while you wait.
This topic brings up another debate: Should you start a new book right after finishing the old one? I’m going to save that discussion for another post. In the meantime, tell me what you think about this question. How long do you usually wait — or how long do you plan to wait after completing your “first” first draft?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.