Editing a manuscript and knowing when it's done!

Answering a subscribers question about when you know your novel is ready to submit... and what happens next!

Editing a manuscript and knowing when it's done!

Last week, we had our third monthly video hangout for paid subscribers and welcomed special guests George Mann and Gareth L. Powell to the call to talk about their work. As always there were questions from our Cav-Stars, one in particular kicking off a long and detailed conversation.

The query came from subscriber Chelsea Kauppinen:

How do you know when a piece of your work is finished? Do you get a sense of finality and just know, or can it be a long process where you go back to it repeatedly over a period of time? (I imagine you have an editing team that helps with this - how does that process work?)

We delved into this in quite a lot of detail in the hangout, but I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it here for you all.

As we said on the call, it often depends on how you write. Both Gareth and George edit as they go, whereas I just splurge. I write and write and, when I realise that there’s something I need to change, I jot it down in a notebook so I can come back to it later, meaning that I don’t interrupt my momentum.

Then, only when I have a full incredibly rough first draft do I go back and edit, starting first with that loooong list of things to change, some of which are small, some of which are MASSIVE!

Again, I start at the beginning and work through to the end, editing in one direction until I have a second draft, and then… I go back to the beginning and start all over again.

As I said, other writers’ vary and neither method - editing as you write or editing after you’ve ‘finished’ - is right or wrong. It all depends on your personal preferences.

Why I work like I do

Personally, I would get frustrated if I edited along the way, as I’m someone who needs forward momentum to feel I’m achieving something. I’m big on seeing word counts increased as a sign that I’m heading in the right direction and have many a chart to monitor my progress. If I don’t see the word count heading in the ‘right’ direction, I soon get disheartened.

There’s another reason too: passages immediately feel set in stone the moment I edit them, harder to edit as I lock myself on a particular path. This means I feel it harder to throw curveballs into the mix later on in the manuscript as it means going back and changing things again. If the previous chapters are looser, I merely tell myself that I’ll fix it in the edit and keep going. For me, it’s freeing. It feels as if I’m giving myself permission to be creative and see where the characters take me.

However, there are downsides. I always have to give myself A LOT of time at the end of a project to edit as there is no way on Earth I could hand in my first draft! George and Gareth, on the other hand, have a pretty solid draft the moment they finish and so only generally need to do a quick polish before submitting. This means they can be writing right up to deadline whereas I have to make sure I have a block of time set aside to get the editing done.

Every now and then, I wonder about trying their method just to see if it works for me, because nothing ventured and all that jazz... Perhaps I should give it a go on a novella. Hmmm.

But how do you know it’s finished?

This is the tricky bit. Sometimes it’s simply a sense that you’ve gone as far as you can go on your own and need to hand it over to an editor to see what they think.

At other times, well, it’s simply a case that you’ve run out of time, the deadline is upon you and it’s now or never!

Either way, it’s important to draw the line at some point. There is always a temptation to keep fiddling. I just need to tweak that. And that. And that. Before you know it, you’re stuck in a loop.

It’s a trap I know I can fall into if I’m not careful. George has seen it in action when we’ve worked together as I obsess about a single line of dialogue, going back and back and back to it over and over again, changing this and trying that. Usually, the first or second edit gives the line the lift it needs, but by the time I get to the seventh, eight or ninth tweak it’s actually getting worse! Plus, once again, that all-important forward momentum is stymied, meaning that you can never move on. Perfectionism really is the enemy of progress. You can’t start new projects if you’re always stuck in the last one.

George actually shared a cautionary tale about this in the video call. Here’s an audio clip of an experience he had:

So what happens AFTER you’ve submitted the manuscript?

To briefly tackle the second half of Chelsea’s question, the process after you submit varies from editor to editor and even project to project.

The usual process is:

  • You submit the book and wait for the editor to read it.
  • The editor sends back their notes, which can be a mixture of small stuff and also larger questions about plot logic, character journeys and world-building. Again, the amount of work needed on these notes can vary in length depending on the project and sometimes can be handled with just one more pass or will need a couple of drafts, each hopefully involving fewer and fewer changes as the process runs its course.
  • Once the editor signs off on the manuscript, you get copy edit notes which are mainly correcting typos and posing last-minute questions from the copy editor.
  • Usually, you get a final PDF to read through after the book is typeset to make sure everything has been caught / no errors have crept in during editing. When that’s done, it’s time to sit and panic about what readers will think, but that’s another story!

I hope that’s useful! If you have any questions about this or any other aspects of writing either drop them in the comments or simply reply to this email.