Chip MacGregor

November 25, 2014

Polishing a Manuscript: When to Give it a Rest


brick green no smile b:wI’ve gotten several versions of this question in the past couple of months. This one came from an author at a recent conference: “How long is too long to spend perfecting my novel? My first page and first three chapters, especially? It seems like every time I show them to someone new, I get more suggestions for changes and improvements. At what point should I stop asking for input?”

Great question! Several of them, in fact. Your question actually raises several different issues to consider when polishing a manuscript.

1. You’ve spent too long perfecting a manuscript when you’re not doing anything else to move your writing career forward. I’ve met many writers who have spent years working on a single manuscript, and they generally fall into one of two camps– either they’ve spent those years staring exclusively at that one project, writing and rewriting it and picking it apart and patching it back together, or they’ve spent those years revisiting their idea/novel in between improving their craft by taking classes, attending conferences, writing additional books, soliciting trustworthy feedback, and reading widely.

If you’re not doing any of these things between rewrites, you’re going to hit a plateau pretty quickly in terms of how much you can actually improve with no resources except your own judgment. So if you’ve already re-worked a manuscript a few times and aren’t currently involved in any of these methods of improving your craft, you’re probably at a stopping point in the polishing process. Go ahead and send it out or take it to some conferences and see what the response is.

2. Solicit feedback wisely. You are entirely right when you observe that “every time [you] show [your pages] to someone new, [you] get more suggestions for changes and improvements.” Every person who reads your pages is going to bring a unique combination of education, taste, and experience to the manuscript, and so every set of suggestions is also going to be unique. If you tried to apply every piece of feedback you received from every beta reader, you’d either go crazy or die of old age rewriting your book. So what’s the solution?

  • Choose your beta readers sparingly. Don’t hand out copies of your sample chapters to every classmate in your writing class, don’t post your opening page on your blog and ask the Internet at large for feedback; choose a small set of folks to read your work so that the responses you get are manageable in quantity.
  • Choose your beta readers wisely. Even if your best friend is a fabulous person, her opinion isn’t going to be super valuable if she doesn’t know much about writing, or if she doesn’t usually read in your genre. When choosing your beta readers, look for people who are GOOD writers– ideally, people who are better writers than you are, so you can learn from them. Look for people who regularly read the genre you’re writing– they’re your target audience. And look for people you can trust– you want to know your beta readers well enough to know that they’re not going to plagiarize you or try to sell you expensive editing services you may not need.
  • Look for themes in feedback. Once you start getting suggestions from your beta readers, you’ll still run into conflicting opinions and suggestions and, for some of these, you’ll just have to use your own instincts to decide whether or not to apply them, but if there are legitimate problems/weaknesses with your manuscript, you’ll probably have more than one reader point them out, so give extra consideration to any suggestions you hear from more than one source.

3. A book is never “done.” There is no magic point at which an author discovers the precise combination of nouns and commas and exactly-right adjectives that mean a book is “done.” Even if you get a manuscript to a place where you are really happy with it, I guarantee that if you come back to it in six months there will be things you want to change, sentences you want to rewrite, lines you want to delete. By virtue of simply being alive and interacting with the world on a daily basis, our views and our experiences change, and those changes shape our creative output. The articles you’ll read, the conversations you’ll have, and the places you’ll go in the next week will contribute to your bringing a slightly different viewpoint to your manuscript at the end of the week, and that difference will probably cause you to want to make a change or two.

Does this mean that the original version of the manuscript was “wrong,” or that the new version is superior? Not necessarily. Apart from the typos we catch when we come back to a manuscript after taking a break, many of the changes we make to a manuscript after we’ve already put in our time plotting and writing and polishing it are based on our own shifting perspective and preferences at the time, and don’t hugely affect the story or the quality of the writing. So, if you know you’ve done your part to improve your craft, applied the feedback of some trusted critics, and made some thoughtful rewrites, it’s time to move on– start working on a proposal, get that manuscript out the door to some agents or editors, start writing on the next one– there may be some more rewrites in your manuscript’s future, but let them be prompted by some thoughtful input from an interested editor, or a vast improvement in your novel-writing skills wrought by drafting three more manuscripts. Don’t let ten years go by attempting to create that mythical “perfect” novel.

What about you? What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on perfecting a manuscript? How did you decide how much tweaking was “enough?”

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  • Rene` Diane Aube says:

    Thanks for addressing this, Erin. I have wondered where/when to stop polishing my manuscripts and how to know who to listen to regarding changes that need to be made.

  • Clay Morgan says:

    Good stuff Erin. When I was panicking about all the work I could still do my editor told me, “A book is never done, just submitted.” Good advice, that.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Once, when perfecting an article, I undid the change I made the day before. I then realized it was time to stop fiddling with it and call it finished.

  • Laura Droege says:

    How do I find beta readers? I don’t have a writers’ group, I don’t know any serious writers in my “real” life (especially not in my genre), and I feel isolated from creative people in general. (Huntsville is known for technology, not the arts.) The local universities don’t offer creative writing classes except every once in a while. Most of the “writers” I meet in the real world are wannabes, who still haven’t completed a full draft of a novel. (I’ve completed multiple drafts of all three of my novels, and am at work on the first draft of a fourth one.)

    The one online group I joined was filled with people who weren’t decent writers and some probably hadn’t read a novel since the Nixon administration. (As some of them weren’t alive during that administration, that was quite a feat.) I don’t have a lot of money to spend on a professional editor or to go to conferences, etc.

    I’m not trying to sound whiny, I promise. But does anyone have any suggestions on how I can find quality beta readers? I’m at the point where I need quality feedback on my third novel, but I’m baffled as to where I’d find it.

  • Peggotty says:

    More solid advice, Erin. I’ve worked at improving my current manuscript about four years. In retrospect, I wish I’d chosen the first readers more wisely. They all read different genres and had various things to say, often contradicting one another. It wasn’t until I began soliciting professional feedback that I began to hear one particular issue echoed. Then I knew where I needed to concentrate my efforts. Thank you for your valuable insight.

  • Erin, it’s been said of poems that they are never finished, just abandoned. I feel this way about every manuscript of a novel I’ve ever submitted. There comes a time when you’ve done all you can, and after that it’s become a matter of trying to polish when the improvement isn’t evident. Thanks for sharing.

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