When is a manuscript done?

Okay, I will admit that’s a trick question. No writer I know is ever really “done” with a piece. We could all tweak until the end of time, because we are constantly growing in our craft.

But if we want to be published, at some point we have to finish the manuscript. It has to be “done” so we can send it out. So how do you decide when it’s done? When it’s “perfect,” or when you simply have revised so much you can’t stand to look at it anymore? Or some other criterion?

I don’t think there is any set rule, other than it has to be as good and polished as you can possibly make it. So the stopping point will be different for everyone. For myself, I usually consider it pretty close to done after the fifth or sixth major revision. At that point, I start to “feel” the story becoming solid. Almost like all the pieces of a puzzle locking together. Once I feel that solidity, I start the polishing process.

But sometimes I have a manuscript that never gets that “together” feeling. I love everything about it – plot, characters, you name it – but something just isn’t clicking. People say you can’t edit your own work, and I know that’s true for me. My editor’s nose tells me when something is wrong, but I can’t always see the manuscript clearly enough to figure out what it is.

How long do you work on a manuscript that you believe in but that simply is not working? If no one has been able to point you in the right direction, what do you do? What is the right length of time to struggle with it before putting it in the drawer and revisiting it later, when your writing skills have matured enough that you can hopefully pinpoint the problem and fix it?

Maybe I shouldn’t ask what length of time, because now that I have a toddler my writing time has disappeared. Before the baby, I was a workhorse – I could churn out words like nobody’s business. Now I fight for every word I get, so revisions take many times longer to complete than they used to. So perhaps the better question would be: How many major revisions before you say, “This isn’t going to work right now” and move on to something else?

I know people who have been “perfecting” the same novel for twenty years (and not because they have small children). It is hard to let your work go out when you know it’s not perfect. But nothing is ever perfect. At some point you have to say, “It’s as perfect as I can make it with the skill and tools I currently possess.” Then you send it out.

So when is a manuscript “done” for you? And at what point do you give up on a difficult one?


  1. Reading this entry has given me even more respect for you, Kerry, and all writers. I expect composers have the same challenges. Performers like me are blessed with the musical maps we are given. We can traverse them from many angles, there is never an end. The composer has given us that great mystical gift.

  2. Eileen Gordon says

    Great post, Kerry. Thanks for that! Good point about editing your own work. I absolutely agree. But I’ve had some horrific rip-off experiences with so-called editors. It would save us all alot of time, trouble and money if someone could come up with a list of tried and true experienced editors. Any suggestions?

    • Luckily, I have not had awful experiences, but then again I’ve only used editors I actually knew. I know the site Preditors & Editors does a good job with bad apple agents. I don’t know if they have any information on editors not actually in publishing houses. But it would be nice for someone to start a website with reputable editors. Are you sure there isn’t one? If not–maybe a job for you in your spare time! 🙂

  3. Good post! You summed up the issues I face really well. My perfectionism doesn’t really help either. 🙂

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