Are we there yet? We’ve heard that question from our kids and sometimes from our spouse. Whenever I teach a class on writing, I hear a similar question: How do you know when you’re finished?
What the writer is asking is how do you know when the story you’ve written is the best it can be? When is it ready to send out?
Unlike a road trip, with writing there’s no absolute answer. The story may be the very best you can write today. Tomorrow you may learn something new or see something in a new light. Most writers I know—after the book’s published—can still find something they wish they’d changed or written a different way. That or someone points out an error. If we all waited until we were 100% sure that there was absolutely nothing in a manuscript that could be or needed to be changed nothing would ever be published.
Writing is a craft and we are always learning. We learn by doing, by reading how others have written a scene (or dialogue), and from critiques. We learn from our failures and our successes.
I used to use a red pen to edit the printed pages of my mss. I told others, “When I see mostly black and very little red on the page, I know the story is ready—or nearly ready—to go out.
Does that mean I’ve caught all of my errors? No. It’s amazing how the mind works, how I can see words as I know they should be written rather than what I actually typed. Or how I can miss the the in a sentence. My mind sees only one “the.”
This is why it’s good to have beta readers, and why I keep hearing others say writers need to hire editors before sending out (or self-publishing) their work. A fresh set of eyes will find typos, repetitions, and errors that the writer no longer sees. It’s also why it’s good to take time after you’ve finished writing something and simply set it aside and do something else for a while. When you come back to the piece, you are more apt to see what is actually on the page rather than what you “think” you see.
I’m experiencing this right now. I’ve had a request for a book I finished last year…or thought I’d finished. Over the last twelve months I’ve sent the ms (or parts of it) out to three agents and entered it in two contests. Each time, prior to sending the ms, I’ve taken time to re-read it, and each time I’ve done that, I’ve found errors and parts that I decide to reword or rewrite. The same is happening this time. I’m a third of the way through a re-read and so far I’ve moved two paragraphs, found two spelling errors (where instead of were and or instead of of), and reworded several sentences. I think the changes I’ve made have improved the flow of the story, and I think I’ve found all of the typos and spelling errors, but am I 100% sure? No. Nevertheless, when I finish this re-read the ms will be sent out, and I’m willing to bet, if this editor does decide to take the story, she will suggest more changes.
So are we there yet? Probably not…but I’m getting as close as I possibly can.