There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal…”
When is a manuscript done?
There are many ways to answer this question, from “A manuscript is never done; eventually we just stop working on it…” to “It’s done when it’s published,” to “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” To be honest, I find some truth in all three of those, and a host of other answers I haven’t yet mentioned.
Those who follow my social media feeds closely, may have noticed that I post about finishing the same manuscript on two or three or even four different occasions: once when I finish the initial draft, again when I complete my revisions and submit it for consideration or publication, yet again when I complete edits and turn in a production draft, and maybe one more time when the book is in its final form and is ready for release. Each of those is a milestone in the development of a book. Each is worthy of celebration.
But when do I consider the manuscript done? There is some truth to that first answer I gave. I consider all my books works in progress. My very first book, Children of Amarid, published in 1997 and recognized with a Crawford Award two years later, was, to my mind, never really complete. I knew for years that I could make it better. And when we finally got the rights back, I edited the book mercilessly (and did the same to its two sequels) and released the Author’s Edit of the novel. Only then, did I truly feel I had finished that first effort.
There is also an essential truth embedded in the other two answers I gave above: “It’s done when it’s published,” and “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” Notice, I didn’t say “It’s done when it’s perfect,” or even, “It’s done when it can no longer be made any better.” There is no novel I can think of – not any of mine, not any by my favorite fantasy authors, not any by Faulkner or Steinbeck, Stegner or McCarthy, Morrison or Marquez – that is perfect, or that couldn’t be made better, even if just incrementally so, by one more editorial pass. There is no such thing as a flawless book. So stop trying to write one.
The true significance of the question “When is a manuscript done?” lies in its import for writers in the early stages of their careers. I know so many beginning writers, young and old, who are working on the tenth or twelfth or twentieth iterations of Their Novels. And for them I offer that first answer again: A novel is never done; eventually we just stop working on it. There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal. It is time I submitted this book to publishers and agents.”
Now, let me be very clear about what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that your novel doesn’t need editing and revision. Of course it does. I’m working on book 25 right now. Or maybe 26. Whatever. I still need feedback and editing. I still need to revise every book, and revise again, and then revise some more. I still use Beta readers. I still seek feedback, tweak the book, and then seek more feedback. Rinse, repeat.
But here’s the thing: I can go through all my edits and revisions and then give my manuscript to a hundred new Beta readers, and chances are each of them will offer some new, unique criticism of the book. Where does it stop? How much editing is enough? When is a manuscript ready for submission?
Obviously, this is a decision each of us must make on his or her own. But the pursuit of perfection can be a career-killer. No editor or agent expects your manuscript to be devoid of flaws. As I said, there is no such thing as a perfect novel, and first novels almost always come with their own set of faults and foibles. Do what you can – make sure your plot works, keep your characters consistent and believable, by all means take care of all the typos and grammatical problems you can find. Your manuscript should be clean and professional. It should be as good as you can make it within reason. It should not be the only thing you’ve worked on for years and years. Because you know what? I’ll bet you every dollar in my pocket that the editor who decides to buy it is going to suggest a bunch of changes. That’s just the nature of the craft, the nature of the business.
In this case, “good enough” is not an abdication, it is not indicative of a lack of caring or effort. It is reality. Work on your book. Make it as good as you can. But don’t obsess over it, and don’t overwork it. Most important, don’t retreat into edits and revisions before you finish that first draft. Get the thing done. Then get feedback and revise. And then send it out and get to work on the next project.
When is a manuscript done?
A manuscript is done when you allow it to be. That’s probably the best answer I can offer.