How to critically evaluate your own writing

Last September, my agent passed on my latest novel. I had been working on it for nearly 4 years. Three previous versions had gone out to editors, all with lukewarm praise and no sales. I embarked on a Major Revision in the summer, and submitted what I thought was my best work. After the rejection, I put it away. Last week I finally found the courage to revisit it.

I don’t know how to tell you this next bit.

It, um, kind of sucked.

I realized instantly that  the version before my Major! Revision! was much better, hence my agent’s enthusiasm for that one, and not this one. What happened was, I put out the latest version without ever really evaluating it. But how do you do that? 

If reading and commenting on bad prose in writing groups is nauseating, you can’t afford to pay an editor, and the feedback from your family and friends is all smiley faces, you need to find a way to get tough with yourself. What you need, I’m sorry to tell you, is time.

I didn’t look at that manuscript for nearly six months, which was enough time to gain the distance necessary to really look at it with a critical eye. Of course in those six months, I worked on other things, which is also necessary. Other projects put the one that’s waiting completely out of your mind. And you need the fresh eye of forgetfulness to tackle it again.

I’m not saying you need to wait six months every time. There’s no magic formula for how long you should wait. But you need to think of the time you take away from a manuscript as an investment in your craft, rather than a delay in seeing your title in print. If you wait to do your best work, you will faster get an agent or editor. If you don’t, you’ll be wasting time in a slush pile anyway. And wouldn’t you rather everyone see your best work at all times?