I am at that stage with a book. You may recognise the one. The point where I do not know if it’s finished. I mean, I think it is. It’s been outlined, researched, drafted, written, re-written; raked for fat and fillers; content edited, and re-written again. I’ve followed various advice to check a printed copy; to read it out loud; to leave it a while and return with fresh eyes (though here I admit I did not leave that long a gap). I have used a beta reader* and re-written and re-checked anew. So the next step is copy editing, right?
If you have a publisher, then presumably a book’s readiness to publish is guided by a combination of deadlines and the view of an editor assigned to you. So not applicable if you self-publish. Particularly if your budget would not stretch to gaining an external professional opinion. There are self-imposed deadlines, but these can always be flexed… And sometimes should be. There is much admonishment for those that rush to self-publish their e-books too soon, insufficient editing being a principal criticism.
So the question of ‘How do I know it’s ready?’ is a vexed one. One I have demanded of various writing manuals in my possession and web sites of writing advice. A summary of the most common suggestions is below, with some conclusions drawn of my own.
When you cannot make it any better
That makes sense, even though it’s uncomfortable. Note you cannot make it any better. That doesn’t mean it could not be improved. Oh heck.
Some suggest this point comes when your changes start making your work worse, not better. Remember tinkering is not re-writing. I find that a more helpful yardstick.
When other people think you cannot make it any better
I agree this is truly valuable, i.e. for a beta reader to pick up on some of the issues – with pacing, flow, coherence, cliché, un/realistic dialogue, un/realistic characters, and so on. Provided you obtain an objective view. However, beta readers may be seeing your work in progress. Plus it’s hard to get full agreement on ‘doneness’ when people bring their own preferences to bear. There still needs to be a ‘final say’.
A useful test may be ‘how much’ and ‘how big’ the suggested changes are. If the answer is ‘not very’, you could be close.
When you accept it will never be perfect
This is usually the advice during which somebody will quote Leonardo da Vinci’s alleged aphorism “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”** Only I don’t think I necessarily expect ‘perfection’ or high art, merely hope for and aim at ‘good’, worth a reader’s time and money.
So perhaps the best I can ask is: Would I buy this, and would I be glad I did?
When you ‘just know’
Eek. Really? I am not experienced enough to have a well-developed instinct.
Some suggest the right point comes when the book and / or characters stop occupying your thoughts; you’ve said what you wanted to say, had your characters do what you wanted them to do. Maybe that’s a more helpful way to approach this?
When it’s on sale
Meaning when it’s too late to change anything. Tough.
Of course, you could still make changes, a process made easier with online publishing. It’s possible to amend any howlers that escaped editing (it may be near-inevitable, but the thought of a reader spotting a typo is just cringe-inducing). Or you can make more significant changes, as long as it’s clear you’ve published a revised edition.
Knowing you can edit a book after publishing doesn’t help much. It’s the responsibility of the writer to do all they can to avoid this. You will probably have to accept though, your work could have been better. And that’s the next thing you write.
Having thought about this, I’ve convinced myself to go back over that first chapter one more time. And I know where that’s going to lead… Surely there’s more ‘polish’ to be applied to the whole thing. A typo I have missed.
So. Doesn’t look like it’s finished after all.
*To find beta readers, there are online forums and groups on Goodreads. Or reach out on social media or to a writing group; these can result in a mutual arrangement for the under-funded. Alternatively, try your WIP on Wattpad or Scribofile (there is a subscription fee for ‘dedicated writers’) to request feedback. There is much advice about beta readers online from more credible and experienced sources than me, so I won’t simply repeat it here.
**Also noting the comment of French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
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