When is a manuscript finished?
One of my favorite books on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I reread this profound book the other day. I was struck by two points; one small and one big. The small one was about how quaint it sounds in the pre-email and pre-digital era. The big one is how it has endless great advice on nearly every page. Most writers would fare well with dissecting it and following many of the precepts the author sets forth.
One of the top quotes I repeat from the book (along with countless others) is “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”
Prior to my life as a publishing consultant, I was a book publisher for a scholarly publisher. I oversaw the publishing of over 500 textbooks and monographs. Many of the authors are friends to this day. One of their most common traits was never wanting to finish the manuscript. They would call with a litany of reasons:
“There’s a new study that’s just being released…”
“Government regulations are going to change everything…”
“Just one more edit, because I want it to be more cohesive…”
“The chapter that got submitted now affects all the others…”
“It feels like it is missing something…”
“Dr. Smith is doing great work in this area and perhaps they can add a quick chapter…”
And the band plays on. I get it. I have reworked this blog post several times.
So, it is fair to ask: When is a manuscript finished?
As a starting point, most book contracts have a due date, so there is that. Past this, is the coming to terms with the inevitable fallibility of every project. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”
I always told my authors that, “Books are a picture in time.” Or, “That is why there are second editions.”
Guy Kawasaki (or was it Steve Jobs) famously said, “Don’t worry. Be crappy.” In other words, get it done now and fix it later. Perhaps this applies more with software with their constant updates (No, I don’t want to download iTunes version 184.108.40.206). But does this apply to books, especially printed ones?
I am not advocating slap dashed work to meet a deadline. “Just good” is definitely not good enough. But there is a big space between, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”
And “Don’t worry. Be crappy.”
Authors are obviously very, very close to their material. Combine this with their immersion in an extremely specialized field and every new development can seem cataclysmic. To determine if now is the time to submit the manuscript, here are some suggestions:
- What was the date on the contract?
- Have faith in the publisher’s editorial process. Many of the warts an author sees will be addressed by a good editor.
- Submit part of it to the publisher for some feedback. Hopefully, the book is assigned to a a great acquisitions or developmental editor that can read a portion and weigh in.
- Talk to a key contributor, colleague, or mentor and ask them to review part of the manuscript. Explain to them about what is holding the manuscript up and see if it rises to the level of a delay.
- If it is a textbook, ask a great student or a teaching assistant to look at it and see if it is up to snuff.
If none of these work, I suggest moving forward and submitting the manuscript. Let the peer review process be the arbiter. “That is why there are second editions.”
John Bond is a publishing consultant at Riverwinds Consulting and the host of the YouTube channel “Publishing Defined.” He has been in scholarly publishing for 30 years. In his career, he has directed the publishing of over 500 book titles and 20,000 journal articles. Contact him at email@example.com.