Monday, March 25, 2024

How Does a Writer Really Know When Their Manuscript Is Ready?

Welcome Mary Kole to IWSG again. This is such an uplifting and encouraging post filled with great common sense tips for writers.

Writing a novel or memoir manuscript is a labor of love. This effort requires a unique blend of passion, creativity, and perseverance that brings your story to life on the page. But once those final sentences are written, a daunting question looms like a shadow over the finish line: How do you know if your manuscript is truly ready for either submission to literary agents and publishers, or self-publishing? For aspiring writers and seasoned authors alike, this question sits at the heart of not just the writing process, but at the invisible transition from creator to published author. In a world where every word can be endlessly adjusted, how do you decide when it’s time to call your project really, truly finished?

Here's a comprehensive guide to help you make an important decision in this definitive moment in your writing journey.

Knowing When to Stop: The Art of Self-Editing

The first step is always the hardest. Once you’ve completed your first draft, the elation of this great accomplishment tends to quickly be replaced by the intimidation and complexity of the self-editing process. The art of revision is crucial to learn, it’s through this process that you mold your story to reflect its true potential. Begin by scrutinizing the structure and clarity of your narrative. Are your characters compelling and consistent? Are they relatable, deep, and flawed, with big needs and wants? Does the plot flow naturally via a sense of cause and effect, or are there gaps and logic flaws that need addressing? 

Every word must serve a purpose, every scene must move the story forward. Look for redundancy and tighten your prose. Remember, less is more when every word counts. Look out for unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions that dilute the potency of your sentences. Often, the simplest phrasing is the most powerful. Be ruthless with your cuts. Furthermore, you should ensure that your characters' voices remain distinct and true to their nature. Remove any dialogue or action that feels out of step or is a clear plot contrivance.

Taking a Breather: The Power of Distance

After swimming in the intricate details of your manuscript, you need to take the critical step of getting away from the page. A breather allows you to return to the project with a fresh perspective, as if looking at your work through the eyes of a reader. A hiatus can bring clarity, highlighting potential issues that you’ve missed in the heat of creation or the organized puzzle of revision. Put your manuscript in a drawer or a digital lockbox, anywhere that you won't be tempted to peek.

There's no one-size-fits-all recommendation for how long your break should be, but a good rule of thumb is a few weeks at minimum. This allows time for your brain to reset and keep working on the story in a subconscious, “back burner” way. But don’t lose your creative momentum. Use this time to indulge in other pursuits or writing projects. Read books unrelated to your genre for fresh insight. Engage in hobbies. The goal is to fill your intellectual and emotional wells so that when you return to your work, you come back enriched and with new and focused ideas.

Seeking Feedback: Outside Eyes on Your Work

A writer’s creation is inherently personal, yet the finished product of a novel or memoir is intended for public consumption. There’s some inherent friction here, and getting quality feedback can bridge this divide. Connect with fellow writers who understand the challenge of the craft, or consider hiring a freelance editor. Fresh perspectives will bring forth strengths and weaknesses you may not have detected.

This process is important because writers are famously short-sighted when it comes to seeing their own work as an outsider might. But getting third-party feedback doesn’t have to be expensive. You can barter with writers, which will also nourish your sense of creative community. Join writing circle, attend workshops, or find online forums or Facebook groups where writers exchange feedback. When offering your own critiques, recall the kind of valuable input you want to see on your own work, and offer the same level of honesty and insight to your peers. An important byproduct of this stage is that you will learn things about your own writing when you see similar issues in others’ work.

If your budget allows, investing in a professional editor can provide a level of polish that few writers can achieve on their own. Editors bring an objective eye coupled with industry expertise that can elevate your manuscript to a publishable standard.

Research and Refinement: Understanding the Market

Publishing is both an art and a business. While you might not want to write to market initially, or get obsessed with what the market is doing while writing. However, it’s generally considered strategic to investigate the publishing landscape once you’re getting ready to submit or self-publish. What are some of the current trends? Any timeliness hook that you can leverage? How does your manuscript fit in? Research the tastes of the moment and consider how to position your story—maybe with an eye toward some current comparative titles—while maintaining its integrity. Balance is key—you want to be relevant without losing the essence that makes your work original.

Keep a keen eye on the books hitting the shelves. Analyze bestsellers, not to mimic them, but to potentially understand patterns—if these narratives resonate with readers, there's something to be learned from them. Of course, you shouldn’t chase trends at the expense of your creative vision, especially since your manuscript already exists in its more-or-less final form. Authenticity is your greatest asset. Infuse market awareness by making informed choices about genre, audience, and even the timing of your submission or release.

The Inflection Point: Submission or Self-Publishing

The pieces are falling into place, and now it’s time to consider your path to publication. Traditional publishing offers the backing of an established house, while self-publishing affords you full creative control. There’s no one right answer—the choice depends on your goals, resources, market knowledge, and the nature of your manuscript. (If you decide to self-publish, be aware that marketing is going to be the biggest challenge. Traditionally published authors are required to market their work, but they tend to have an easier time getting distribution to bookstores, libraries, etc.)

If you’re aiming for traditional publication, your job becomes to craft a compelling query letter and meticulously research literary agents who represent your genre and target audience. Submissions are a marathon, not a sprint. Patience and persistence are your allies in this pursuit. It just takes one yes, and if you’ve done the hard work of self-editing, getting feedback, and researching the market, you can consider yourself ahead of the rest of the writers in the submission trenches.

If you choose to self-publish, invest in professional cover design, formatting, and marketing. Build a platform, engage with your potential audience, and understand the self-publishing landscape to make informed choices about distribution and pricing. There is generally a steep learning curve as you learn the technology and techniques involved, but the tools that exist to help you have never been more robust. 

The Decisions Are Yours

There's no syllabus or formula when it comes to completing a manuscript, and every writer’s path is as unique as their voice and storytelling imagination. Trust the process, take your time, and remember that the final word on your manuscript's readiness should come from within. It's your creative conviction that ultimately decides if a manuscript is ready for the world.

Believe in the power of your story and the art of your craft. Know that every edit, every break, and every feedback round—from trusted friends to astute professionals—is a stepping stone toward reaching your manuscript's final form. When the project hits that perfect expression of itself in just the right way, you’ll feel it, deep in the marrow of your writing bones. Or maybe you’re just so sick of it after years of hard work that you can’t wait to get it off your plate. The former reason to submit or publish is obviously a little more compelling than the latter, but both are valid. When you decide that you and your project are ready, it’s time to share it with the world.

Photo Credit: Erin VonRuden (


Former literary agent Mary Kole founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013 and provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres. She founded Good Story Company in 2019 with the aim of creating valuable content—like the Good Story Podcast, YouTube channel, and Good Story Learning classes and resources—for writers of all categories and ability levels. Her Story Mastermind small group workshop intensives help writers level up their craft, and she offers done-for-you writing and ghostwriting at Manuscript Studio and marketing services with Good Story Marketing. She also develops unique and commercial intellectual property for middle grade, young adult, and adult readers with Upswell Media and Bittersweet Books (website forthcoming).

​​Mary has appeared at regional, national, and international SCBWI conferences, as well as independent conferences including Writer's Digest, Penn Writers, Writer's League of Texas, San Francisco Writers Conference, WIFYR, Writing Day, and dozens of others. She has guest lectured at Harvard, the Ringling College of Art and Design, the Highlights Foundation, and the Loft, and her classes can be found online at Writing Mastery Academy, Writing Blueprints, Udemy, and LinkedIn Learning.

She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She started blogging at in 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer's Digest Books/Penguin Random House. She’s also the author of Successful Query Letters, Writing Irresistible Picture Books, and How to Write a Book Now from Good Story Publishing.

 Social Links
















Natalie Aguirre said...

It's so hard to know when to stop editing a manuscript. Thanks for your tips on how to know when you can say your done, Mary. And you're right that we have choices now about how to publish our story based on our desires and needs.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I stop editing when things I've changed start changing back to the way they were. Then it goes to my test readers and then critique partners.

Sarah Kolb-Williams said...

Mary, you always have such fantastic advice. This is all spot-on! I especially appreciate that you recommend taking a breather—it's something a lot of authors are unwilling to do, but coming back with fresh eyes is the BEST way to spot issues and solutions.

cleemckenzie said...

I agree with the others who have commented here so far. I loved Alex's. I've done that. It felt as if I were chasing my tail. Definitely time to stop.

debi o'neille said...

Editing does seem as never-ending as the laundry. I like the suggestions I've read in your article in the comments on when to take a break. Sometimes it's hard to know when the editing is done, or when it isn't done but you need to walk away from it for a spell so that you can return with a fresher look.
Thanks for the tips!