A friend of mine, Matthew Buckley, posed a thought to a writing group we belong to.
When you carve something, you are basically taking away what doesn't need to be there. First you start with a block and you take things away until they are just right. At that point, if you take off more, you are damaging the product. If you keep working, eventually you just have a pile of sawdust or marble shavings.
So at what point do you stop tweaking your writing? Is it easy for all of you to think, "Yep, that's done. It's perfect. If I change it anymore, it will be a weaker book."
I am one of those authors who could "tweak until it's weak." I could, but I don't. I'd love to say it's because I'm brilliant enough to know when to say, "when," but really I think it is my lack of patience that is to blame. I want to see my book on a bookstore shelf NOW, never later.
So the fine line we walk is knowing when to stop tweaking and whittling away, and when to start putting it out for public consumption. For every person I daresay the answer is different. But for me, after several years of stupid manuscripts, I came up with a five reader rule. If my book hasn't been workshopped through five readers, then it isn't ready to hit the desk of someone with buying power. And I don't mean five readers who like you and are afraid of hurting your feelings. And typically, I don't recommend your mother ever being one of your five. Pick five readers who you trust to be straight shooters.
How many drafts should you write?
I write two initially, rework the manuscript several more times as reader reports come in and once more for the publisher. My attention span isn't long enough to do more than that. What's right for you? I could not say. Maybe more, maybe less.
But I know people who have been working on their masterpiece for years, tweaking, adding commas, changing modifiers, removing adverbs and dead words. I wonder if they are tweaking because they are perfectionists, or are they tweaking because they are afraid of submitting?
It is a fine line, because you must turn in your best work--you MUST. The competition is fierce. But you also must actually get to a point where you let go and TURN IT IN, because if you don't, you will forever be a dabbler and never really an author.
This thought of sculpting to perfection, of whittling away until you are truly done is subjective. Every writer needs the luxury of having his own way of doing things. The freedom to create offers limitless possibilities. But if you're worried your whittling your manuscript to a pile of sawdust, you might just be guilty of being afraid to move on. Only you know the answer to that. But in my household we have a saying, "Courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway."