If you’re currently writing or revising a manuscript, you’ve probably found yourself looking forward to the day when you reach the final page for the last time. Maybe you’ve pictured yourself typing “THE END” or labeling your manuscript file as “FINAL” (or perhaps some variation of “Manuscript_final_NEWfinal_REALfinal _FINALfinal_THISONEISFINAL”).
But no matter how many times you envision finishing a manuscript, it can be surprisingly difficult to know when your book is truly “done.” While writing a book has often been compared to running a marathon, a more accurate description might be running a race without knowing the distance. Some writers may discover that they’ve signed up for a 5K, while others may find themselves running a 10K, a half marathon, a marathon, or even an ultramarathon.
Given how much the writing process varies from author to author and book to book, today’s letter focuses on how to recognize when the finish line is in sight—or when you may need to refuel and rest in order to finish the race.
Consider your writing process for this manuscript.
When did you finish the first full draft? About how many times have you read or revised the full draft (versus reading or revising smaller sections)? Have you recently made major changes to the characters, plot, narration, or structure? How long have you been working on the manuscript without taking time away from it? Try to approach this step analytically, without emotion or judgment—remember that there is no “right” number of drafts or timeline for completing a great book.
If you’ve recently finished a draft, completed a significant revision, or been working on your manuscript nonstop since writing the first line, consider putting your manuscript away for a few weeks or more. When you are ready to dive back in, try reading through your full draft in an unfamiliar format, such as printing a hard copy; putting it on an e-reader or tablet; changing the font; or reading it aloud. The time away and the new format will both help you to return to your manuscript with fresh eyes.
On your fresh read, try to keep any future revision ideas you have in a separate file or notebook, rather than revising as you go. When you’ve completed your fresh read, evaluate your notes. Are most of the changes relatively minor—relegated to specific lines or phrases—or have you noted large-scale changes? If the latter, will these larger changes impact the book as a whole, or only specific sections? Do you feel confident that these changes will make for a stronger book, or are you conflicted?
If you feel confident in making large-scale changes or have a list of mostly minor revisions, you’re likely ready to begin your next round of revisions. However, if you feel conflicted about making changes or don’t see any areas that you’d like to revise, it’s likely time to solicit trusted external feedback before you dive back in.
Ask an outside source.
If you’re unsure about making further revisions or are wondering whether a manuscript is ready to submit, receiving feedback from a critique partner or other trusted source can be invaluable. If you’ve also made significant revisions to your manuscript, you may want to enlist someone who hasn’t read previous drafts; this can help to identify problems that may have been introduced by the revisions or that would only be readily apparent to a first-time reader. However, as I mentioned last week, take care to utilize fresh readers judiciously, rather than seeking multiple opinions on every draft. Receiving endless feedback can not only delay your progress on your book, but it can also risk overpowering your unique vision, voice, and perspective.
Try writing something new.
If you’ve tried the above steps and are continuing to struggle with a particular manuscript, consider setting it aside for a longer period of time and turning your attention to another idea. No matter how strong an idea or manuscript is, there can be a number of other roadblocks preventing you from finishing it at any specific point in time—perhaps you’re suffering from burnout; maybe you aren’t currently able to access the emotions or perspective the story requires; or maybe the book presents challenges that you haven’t yet found solutions for.
If this is the case for you, remember that putting a book aside for now doesn’t mean that you’re putting it aside forever. Inevitably, the books you write today will be different from the books you’d have written five years ago, as well as the books you’ll write five years from now. In time, you may see solutions to today’s seemingly unsolvable story problems. But whether or not you decide to return to the story in the future, you and your writing will benefit from exploring new ideas, rather than continuing to beat your head against the proverbial wall.
Your Editor Friend,
P.S. If you found this letter helpful, please consider sharing it with a friend or subscribing to receive letters straight to your inbox every Wednesday. If you’d like to say hello, share feedback, or submit a question that I might answer in a future letter, please email me or ask me a question anonymously! I’d love to hear from you.