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Rx from the Book Doctor: Is a Writer’s Job Ever Finished?

May 2, 2014

By Bobbie Christmas

This morning I saw that debris from all my overhead trees had covered my back deck. I went out with a broom and swept up all the stringy things that fell from the pine trees and the leaves that fell from the bushes. My deck is small, but the pile grew large before I swept it off the edge and onto the ground below. Smirking with satisfaction, I went back inside and returned to editing a manuscript for a client.

About two hours later, my dog asked to go out, so I opened the back door, and there I saw my deck, once again covered with nature’s debris, as if I had done nothing at all, this morning. Sometimes writing feels the same way to me. I can work on a piece for a long time, but once I print it and begin reading the printed piece, my red pen starts flying. Before I’m finished, what I thought was a perfect piece is covered in red ink, and I have to start over again, making changes, corrections, deletions, and additions. Is a writer’s job ever finished?

Often I hear from other writers who have gone through four, five, or even more drafts of a novel, but they still are not ready to say it is finished. How can a writer know when to stop? I look at the problem this way: like the endless debris that falls from the trees onto my deck, writers have endless choices and decisions, because every word we write is subject to change.

No matter how often we sweep through our manuscripts, we may find more things to revise. For most book-length manuscripts, after two or three drafts, the book should be ready for editing, either by a professional or a member of your critique group. The next draft should be based on the comments and suggestions from the editor, and the book should then be ready for submission or self-publishing.

If you do not think the manuscript is finished after the fourth draft, especially if you did not use a professional editor, you have two options, in my opinion. The first is to get a professional opinion from a qualified editor—not a spouse, friend, or critique partner, but a competent person schooled in grammar, punctuation, syntax, pace, flow, organization, characterization, dialogue, and plot. If your editor suggests sweeping changes, perhaps the book will never be ready for submission, especially if you disagree with his or her suggestions. You have the option of making those changes, but if your gut resists, it may be time to learn from what you’ve done and move on to the next book.

Later you may revisit the earlier book and see what it needs, but no matter what, you will have learned a great deal in the process. Did I learn anything in the process of sweeping my deck? Only that it does not pay to feel satisfied with a job, because some tasks are endless. Instead I can appreciate the warm weather and be thankful I swept only pollen pods this morning and did not have to shovel snow.

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About the Author: Bobbie Christmas, professional editor and award-winning writer, founded Zebra Communications in 1992 to help writers prepare books for publication. A lifetime member of FWA, she oversees the Editors Helping Writers service. Because she cures ailing manuscripts, people refer to her as a book doctor. Her website is www.zebraeditor.com, and her e-mail address is Bobbie@zebraeditor.com.

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6 Comments
  1. L. Dean Murphy permalink
    May 2, 2014 11:12 am

    Book MD, I *adore* the analogy of debris needing constant attention! The TV program “Hoarders” lets us know the penalty for neglect. Now, if only you can prescribe a magic pill that teaches me how to de-clutter my mind…☺

    • May 3, 2014 5:15 pm

      After I watch an episode of Hoarders, I always go to my closets and find things to give to charity. I also feel better about throwing out empty jars and other containers I always thought I would use, but never did. As for de-cluttering the mind, oh, dear, mine is too cluttered to help you.

  2. May 2, 2014 2:22 pm

    Reblogged this on Rebecca's Ramblings and commented:
    Read this blog entry from Bobbie Christmas of the Florida Writers Conference. Lots of good info.

  3. May 4, 2014 3:25 pm

    Bobbie, I’m basically lazy unless I’m doing something creative like writing. I have an alternative approach: get rid of the deck. The debris will decompose and turn into mulch which will keep weeds from growing. This way you’ll save yourself lots of time and effort over the years. A secondary suggestion is to use a leaf blower. But you’d have to plug it into an outlet and I’m too lazy for even that. I’m never too lazy to real your newsletter, however. It is always jam packed with great stuff. Happy Mother’s Day dear lady!

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