A Far Cry Better: How to Know Your Manuscript is Finished
Updated: May 12, 2021
In my experience, many writers fall into two categories — they either believe their work is finished when it is not, or they nitpick it to death in the belief that they’re still improving it.
Like most writers, I’ve been party to both categories at one point or another. Both situations are less than ideal, the latter often used to mitigate our list of hypothetical nightmare scenarios related to sharing our work. Criticism can be such a rude awakening, once you’ve waded through the denial — a feat not all writers achieve — and are faced with the harsh reality that you’re not perfect, and even worse, neither is your writing.
On one of my early forays into writing, I provided a short story I was quite proud of to a friend of mine to get his thoughts. This was back in the days when hard copy was the norm, and he asked if he could mark up the pages. “Please do!” I invited, confident I would receive no more than the odd scribble here and there.
What I got back was a manuscript dead on arrival, the pages so bloody with red ink you could barely see the text. He pointed out the flaws of every developmental consideration, detailed a number of poor writing techniques and divulged a litany of technical errors.
After the shock wore off and I had time to consider the state of it all, I abandoned any pretense of denial. I had no choice — my friend was right. It was a blow to my ego, of course, but it also subjected me to the difficult realization that maybe this whole writing thing wasn’t as easy as I’d thought.
Over subsequent years, I overcompensated, vowing to learn from my mistakes. I reworked stories to death before I would share them. The feedback wasn’t much better, and rightly so. I’d taken my lesson too far, fixing things that weren’t broken, striving for a perfection that wasn’t there.
Writing is a solitary pursuit, to be sure, but it’s worth remembering that it’s only one part of the process of bringing your story to the world. Sharing your work is the other part. Sharing gives you vital feedback, allows you to make adjustments you hadn’t considered, and gives you a chance to step away for a while. One thing most writers forget is that time away from your work is every bit as important as time spent on it.
Friends and family can provide good feedback, but even more important is the critique of strangers — those who aren’t tied to you emotionally, who can provide a more objective point of view, who have a love of writing as deep as yours. Writing communities, both online and IRL, are an invaluable tool no matter your genre.
Better still — and in conjunction with writing communities — is the feedback of an editor, someone who specializes in improving writing, someone with whom you’ve built a trusting relationship, who understands how you think, how you write and how to bring out the best in you.
If you walk away with anything, let it be this: Your manuscript is either perfect or it’s finished — never both. And that perfection you feel you’re so close to reaching? It doesn’t exist.
For those of you who edit and tweak and poke and prod your manuscript to the point that you’re no longer improving it, try to understand that it isn’t your writing that isn’t ready — it’s you.
So the question becomes, how do I know when I’m ready? By recognizing the fact that perfection shouldn’t be your goal.
There is no such thing as a writer who stops learning. Every writer, no matter how accomplished, keeps learning new things about their craft and themselves. That’s why they read so much — it’s one of the best ways to learn.
There’s no end to improving as a writer, which renders the notion of perfection a fallacy. Set it aside, and focus instead on how your story can function as part of the broader literary discussion of which we’re all taking part — not as a final, irrefutable statement that must meet a fictional absolute in order to be considered valid.
Whether you’re waiting to share your work with someone for the first time or waiting to submit your final draft after making adjustments based on feedback, you’re not going to give the world the perfect story — and that’s exactly as it should be.
You’re going to give the world your story. And that’s a far cry better than perfect.