Our stories are often long in gestation and as personal to us as if they were born of our flesh and blood. If you want yours to have ten fingers and ten toes and be referred to as “perfect”, then you must look honestly at their DNA during the editing process.
There are three rules for being brutal enough when revising your work:
Open up to hear what others say. Put aside your normal, deep-seated fear of criticism. Easy to say, not simple to do, but it’s the golden path. The best ways to stick your neck out of your comfort zone are to join a critique group, find a beta reader, or pay a free-lance editor. Each of these resources will react to your manuscript in direct and honest ways that can help you see the work for what it really is. The more you care about your story and the more time you’ve spent on it, the more important this is because the world of readers always have their opinions. You can’t control how readers will react to your work, but you can act preemptively to best understand what you will offer them. You also need to get your ideas past the publishing world’s gatekeepers and into the hands of your audience, and those editors and agents are experts at distinguishing a well-conceived story from one that will fail. You owe it to yourself to look at your work from every angle so it will truly be the best it can be.
Listen deeply to everything, even the hard parts. If a critiquer says “I don’t quite understand…” and it’s that beautiful scene you spent so much time on, recognize that comment as the red flag it is and do something about that. Holding on tight can be the death of a project. Do you have too many characters, an ending with no punch, or a voice that doesn’t fit the age group? Your critiquer has just given you an opportunity to use your writing skills to bring that story to where it should be. Does your manuscript go on for too long, skim past scenarios where you should be showing more deeply how your characters feel, or lack a satisfying arc? Resist the urge to rebut those comments. Perhaps those aspects that you love aren’t being felt by your readers in the way you intend. It is imperative for you to know that before you embarrass yourself by shopping the story too soon, or even worse, by having it go out into the world and sink like a stone.
Choose what to really change. This is the most brutal part. Some of what a beta reader, the editor you hired, or a critique group buddy suggests may sound drastic or shocking to you. Is s/he right in saying that this 50,000 word YA novel should be rewritten in third person instead of first? That you should slice away one of the characters who appears throughout? Or that you should rearrange the story arc? Major changes like those would be lots of work, but if true, it’s worth the effort. Put aside your personal preference and rewrite a chapter that way so you will know if it truly is a wiser option for your book. One category of input worthy of being ignored is when, rarely, someone wants changes that will make the story more like their own. It’s yours and must remain your creation. But otherwise, you should look at your story from the outside in and try to understand why your critiquer wants this drastic change even if that means a major rewrite. Addressing that may recast your work in a new and amazingly better way.