How to tell when you're finished writing your manuscriptThere’s that famous adage about the novelist never being able to finish a book, only abandon it to the public.

Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’re really done writing and revising your book, story, or poem. You could easily tweak your manuscript forever, draft after draft, and still end up asking yourself every time, “is this version any better than the last?”

It can be one of those things: the tighter you grip, the more it slips away. You lose perspective, and by then you’ve traveled so far from the original idea that you can’t even tell if you want to keep walking down this road.

If you’ve entered what Thomas Lee calls “The Black Hole of Revision,” here are a few ways to tell whether your work is finished or not.

1. Submit it —

It’s not called “submission” for nothing. Eventually you have to stop fighting.

Some people are very precious about submitting work to agents or editors. They think they can only send in the stuff that they’re 100% confident in. Nonsense! I’ve sent in packets of four or five poems before, being “certain” of two of them, and really uncertain about the rest.

Guess which ones got published! Yep, the ones I was iffy on. In fact, my most recent acceptance was for a poem I’d started to revise again immediately after submitting it, convinced that I’d found more giant flaws. I cut out those sections and drastically revised the line breaks. The editor said yes to the older version because of the very things I started to get insecure about. Shows what I know!

Don’t be so precious about things. Your inner-compass can sometimes steer you wrong. Send your work to agents and editors and, as my Republican friends say, “let the marketplace decide.”

Of course on the flip side, a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your manuscript needs more work. It just might not’ve been right for the editor or agent at the time. So you should always keep that fallible inner-compass nearby.

2. Ask a friend —

Nothing revolutionary here. Simply get some feedback from fellow writers you trust. You’ll have to account for minor differences in taste if they make minor suggestions, but if they think it’s good overall, you might be finished with this project.

If you don’t have a fellow writer, mentor, or critique group you trust to give you feedback, you could aways pay to get some professional eyes on your manuscript.

3. Give it a rest —

Legend tells of a poet (I think it was Richard Wilbur, but who knows when it comes to apocryphal stories about poets) — a poet that wouldn’t publish any of his poems until they were at least a year old.

Why? Well, he needed his work to marinate for a while. Once he thought he was finished writing, he’d put the poem away and let it sit for a year. After that time had passed, he’d be able to see what he’d written with fresh eyes. Sometimes a poem was finished; sometimes not. With time (if not patience), he was able to make those decisions for himself.

How long does it usually take you to see your writing anew? A week, a month, a year? Leave it alone and work on something new, then come back when the buzzer goes off.

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How do you tell when you’re done writing a book, story, or poem? Is it an agonizing process? Let me know in the comments section below.

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Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 563 posts in this blog.

is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

3 thoughts on “Enough is enough: how to know when you’re done revising your manuscript

  1. Jim says:

    I am at exactly this point. I have written a paper on a certain theological point. It’s 40 pages long and I have been beating this thing to death for month and to be frank, I am getting sick of it, as there is so much more I want to write about and I want to get this out of my hair.

    My wife is pretty good at finding the small errors and she has gone through it and done a pretty good job. I don’t have the heart to ask her to go through the final draft (final? Is this really the final draft?).

    I have a friend who majored in writing in college and I have decided to send it to him to correct and tear apart if needed. Not that I won’t have my veto pen handy but after looking at this thing for so long, I’m not even seeing grammar errors or words left out (revisions and additions after my wife red-lined it).

    Thanks for helping me finally be ready to “abandon” this child. Especially when writing on theology, I want to make sure that what I say is what I meant to say.

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