When is “done” done?

By Sean Curley

One of the things writers ask me is how I know when a manuscript is done? The answer isn’t as easy as you might think. It can be incredibly difficult to just complete a novel. When you are done, however, you aren’t really done. The revision process can be long and harrowing. For me, the feedback I received from (non-friendly) reviewers of my first novel, Propositum – A Novel, prompted me to put the novel on hold for over two years while I improved my craft. Once that was complete, I re-wrote the book, not quite from scratch since I had a great plot, but close.

When that was complete, my editor and I went through a serious of reviews and edits. We started at a macro level and looked at plot and consistency. Then we looked at flow and transitions. Finally we went to paragraph structure and wording. You might think at that point that the novel is complete and ready to publish. However, each subsequent review yielded more changes that improved the book. From cleaning up the sound (try reading it aloud) to making it more concise to correcting outright errors (grammatical or semantic), every review found issues. In revising this novel my editor and I each read the book a dozen times or so. Each time it improved. By the end, after a couple of months of this, I decided I was fed up with trying to make it perfect and gave it to the publisher to generate a test copy. That would be my final review of the novel. I found that reading it in print yielded some surprising results. Issues were found that I had never seen when reading on a screen.

I suspect that we have all read books where there are many errors and been frustrated. None of us want to be the author of one of those books. On the other hand, there is a point of diminishing returns when continuing to review and edit means you are trying for a perfection that, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily worth it. Maybe if you want to publish a single “Great American Novel,” it would be worth the effort. But, in my case, I want to publish a number of novels and can’t afford to spend my life improving every single word in just one.

In general, I practice the following steps when revising a novel (don’t do this alone as your specific idiosyncrasies may cause certain errors to be difficult to discover; find someone who is willing to critique you at the right level – meaning point out real issues, but not try to rewrite the novel for you):

  • Let it sit for a while (after the draft is complete) and then read it again
  • Confirm the plot and story are complete and that the book flows and ends well
  • Review the novel for paragraph and sentence structure and for word choice
      1. Check for replication of unusual words
      2. Check for similar words too close together (within a few sentences)
      3. Check for year/location- and world-appropriateness of words
  • Tighten up the language and make sure it reads smoothly
  • Re-review the text until you are comfortable it is close (so repeat as needed)
  • Read it aloud as a final test of readability
  • Use a POD service like Lulu to print a single copy and review the hard copy
  • Call it good and be proud of it!

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Sean Curley - Author Photo

Sean Curley (1961-) was born and raised in California. His Catholic upbringing shifted to Philosophy and Computers during college. Others have referred to him as a Renaissance man because of his diverse educational background in Computer Science, Philosophy, Management, Space Studies, and Creative Writing. He is frequently found speaking on diverse topics such as Humanism, management, parenting, separation of church and state, and religious history. He has published one non-fiction book, Humanism for Parents, and one novel, Propositum – A Novel. He is currently working on two more novels. Mr. Curley lives in Colorado with his children.

2 thoughts on “When is “done” done?

  1. W. J. Howard

    Great advice, Sean! Exactly what I need at this point in a novel I’ve spent the last four months cutting in half. I’ve got this little voice in the back of my head telling me I cut out too much, but my gut tells me it’s a much better read.

    Reply
  2. Patricia Stoltey

    I learned the hard way that too much rewriting can eventually write the life out of your novel. Luckily, I saved all the earlier drafts so I could get back to the right version for final editing.

    Reply

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