By Lynda R. Young
I recently went through some old manuscripts that had gathered dust. They’d been shoved in the proverbial drawer because of a perceived lack of perfection. I had believed they couldn’t be fixed because they broke the supposed rules, or the characters weren’t interesting enough, or I’d decided the beginnings were terrible or the endings were flat. I had plenty of excuses to hide them away and not enough courage to bring them into the light and try again.
I’ll admit I’m too much of a perfectionist when it comes to writing. But life is short and I’d had enough of silly excuses. There are plenty of popular books out there that are far from perfect yet they have a given a lot of readers thorough enjoyment. And it turned out my stories weren’t as bad as I had first thought. The problem was, they wouldn’t give anyone anything if I didn’t get them out there.
So when do you know your manuscript is ready for publication?
1. Write YOUR story
One of my manuscripts had eleven drafts before I had given up on it. Eleven! With each iteration, I’d made it worse. I’d sent it to countless people to critique and they all had something different to say about it. I kept trying to please everyone rather than listen to the story that wanted to be written. I kept focusing on the negative and believed the story wasn’t good enough and couldn’t be fixed. I ended up going back to an early draft and starting again. It is a thousand times better now and it’s ready.
2. Learn the rules but don’t be ruled by them
Some writers prefer to call them guidelines rather than fixed rules that mustn’t be broken. Whatever you call them, to flout them entirely is a mistake. They will make your writing better if you understand them first before deciding to break them. But do feel free to break them if your story calls for it. So what if your main character isn’t likeable? What does it matter if you use multiple flashbacks to drive your story? You want your story to revolve around a common trope? Find a way to make it work, then go for it!
3. Get valued feedback
Despite what I said in the first point, it is important to get feedback on what you’ve written. Get at least two critiques and then get a professional edit. A lot of what we have in our head doesn’t always translate onto the page. That’s why we need those extra eyes. So make sure the feedback is coming from people who understand your genre and preferably have experience with editing. Everyone has a bias too, so it’s important to also read between their lines.
4. Time is a great editor
Rather than declaring a piece finished and throwing your manuscript out there in a rush, give it some time to percolate. Stepping away from it for a while will give you fresh eyes so you’ll be able to see whether it is as awesome as you first thought or still needs some work. Time will help you trust your gut.
5. Perfect is an impossible goal
My husband coined the perfect phrase for what we should strive for when it comes to a finished manuscript: Happy Perfect—the perfect that’s not perfect, but you’re proud of it anyway and you’re willing and ready to share it with the world. Readers rarely notice the mistakes, the tropes, the broken rules. If they are enjoying your story then you’ve got a winning book.
For me a manuscript is never finished because I could constantly pick at it and tweak here and there. But I want to share my stories with the world which means I need to finish them to send them out there. It does take courage to stand firm in the blaze of other people’s opinions and our own doubts, but using these suggestions might help.
How do you know when your manuscript is finished?
Very true, rules aren't fixed. And yeah, taking some time away is a great tip too.
I'm a perfectionist who also struggles with saying it's done. But I know it's done when I start changing things back to the way they were in the first draft.
I've done that same thing - made things worse with each revision, sucking all the original oomph out of the story. Not fun.
Yes, please give it time. Throwing it out to the world when it's not ready can kill a career.
Yes, thank you for these tips! I especially like the "Happy Perfect" idea, not really perfectionism but happy with it. I also think every draft needs time to percolate so we can see it more clearly. I've learned that slowly over the last five years.
BTW - I shared this via IWSG Instagram.
Giving a manuscript time to sit before going through it again really does make a difference. We need that space so we can think and see clearer.
Great tips. Thanks for sharing with us!
This is completely me - and why I haven't gotten myself into querying yet - there's always something new I've learned and want to apply so I end up with even more rewrites. I think I'm getting better at moving past this -but I have my doubts! :)
Tyrean, thanks so much for the share on Instagram
Jemi, I hope you can get past those doubts. I too struggle with that but ultimately we have to remember what it is we want, ie, sharing our work with the big wide world.
Hi Lynda - "Happy Perfect" sounds such a sensible option ... wise words from your hubby! ... we certainly need to finish things and move on - so well done you've rescued a few stories ... cheers Hilary
My debut novel suffered from listening to too many critics' - maybe that is why I'm on my fifth draft of another novel but haven't shown it to anyone yet. Need to check where I've gone wrong this time...against your excellent list.
Yes, I time is the best way to determine if a manuscript is finished or still needs work. Great tips.
Hilary, my hubby is a smart cookie and a great support. Thanks so much.
Roland and Toi, thanks so much.
This is a great list! I like the idea of Happy Perfect. It sums the feeling up so nicely. I read an article today from a freelance editor who shared his thoughts on nineteen years of freelancing, and one of his items on the list was that we need to learn to be happy with the finished product, even if we feel it should have had more done to it, or if the author didn't want more than the bare minimum touched—because if the author is happy, then we as editors need to find a way to be happy also.
"I ended up going back to an early draft and starting again. It is a thousand times better now and it’s ready." When I was in school, and we'd be required to turn in multiple drafts, I'd write the first draft in ink. I'd then work in reverse, making each "earlier" draft worse, so I'd have mistakes to correct. I'd turn those in. The final, "A+" paper was always the "first draft." I loathed rewriting / editing (remember, though, this was back in the days of handwritten work - or old-fashioned typewriter work - where all the pages had to be corrected if the stupid thing was rewritten). I edited very well in my head. Only after the invention of the affordable home PC did I get to the point where I could stand to edit, and I think maybe my writing's suffered for it in some ways and benefitted in others.
Writers MUST know the rules before breaking them; breaking the rules MUST be done purposefully, not carelessly.
I'm not much of a "joiner" and most of my friends are either busy, professional writers; highly-paid (and worth it) editors; or readers who have busy lives and can't be bothered to critique.
Have you ever stuck your writing in a drawer, forgotten about it for months (or years), opened that drawer, and wondered, "Who the heck wrote this, and can I steal it?" (Mine usually looks better to me after months of festering in a desk - or, maybe I should treat it like a fine wine - fermenting and aging in an oak cask of a drawer. I recently bought a new bed; it has drawers underneath, built into the frame. I can now literally "sleep on it a while."
Oh, God save us writers from the curse of perfectionism. MY husband once pointed out that 60% - heck, even 30% - was better than the 0% I was getting to if I couldn't reach 100% (he was talking about housekeeping, but same diff - it all stems from the same demanding inner critic).
I'm still trying to revive my blog after a two-month hiatus, hoping to find some inspiration in other people's. Looks like I'm finding inspiration and writing my POSTS in other people's comments sections. LOL Come visit some time! A Fresh Perspective (I'd better hurry up and post something new, lest that title become too ironic for words.)
I love tip number 4, being the incredibly impatient person who I am :)
It took me ten years to know my latest book was finished! I guess if you're a perfectionist, there's always something you can do to make it better. It's good not to rush into publication. Let as many people read it as possible and keep making it better.
Learn the rules, but don't be ruled by them. - Gold!
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