How do you know when you’re done?
That’s a question I’ve received a few times in the last few weeks. How do you know when your editing process is finished? How do you know when your story is ready to publish?
One writer, Cate, called this “the Holy Grail of editing questions” when she wrote in to ask me. And I agree—I think this is a question we’re all always asking. Writers, editors, everyone—how do you know when a book is done?
It is super hard to know. This is a super hard question for me to answer! I had to sit with it for a long time and ask myself, how do I decide when to call a book finished? What am I looking for when I make that call?
And I did come up with an answer, which I’m going to share with you in this episode.
In fact, I even came up with a checklist. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment, but if the idea of a checklist gets you excited right away, go ahead and grab it by clicking here and entering your email.
But even as I was compiling my thoughts, all I could think was, this is my perspective on the answer right now. This is what I, Alice Sudlow, think in May of 2023.
It’s probably different from what other writers think. It’s probably different from what other editors think. It’s probably different from what I will think in one year or five years or ten years.
I don’t say that to indicate that anything in this episode is wrong or incorrect. I just want to acknowledge that there are a lot of ways to approach this question. And honestly, I will probably evolve in my own thinking on it.
So part of the fun here is that I’m sort of sticking my flag in the sand and saying, right now, this is what I think. It’ll be really interesting to come back later and see how my answer changes.
So how do you do it? How do you know when your editing process is finished, when your book is done, when it’s time to publish?
What Is Done?
First off, let’s define “done.”
For the purposes of this conversation, I don’t mean “done” as in perfectly proofread.
I mean “done” as in the developmental editing process is finished, the story is working, and you’re ready to move forward into polishing for publication.
The book is NOT copyedited or proofread at this stage.
Its style IS developed and refined. That might have happened during a specific line editing draft, or it might have happened organically throughout the developmental editing process.
But it is NOT completely free of technical errors.
So when I say “done,” I don’t mean “throw it up on Amazon tomorrow”; I mean now stop changing the content of the story and start preparing it for publication.
How do you know? How do you know when you’re done?
Start With a Gut Check
Here’s my first response:
Your book is done when it feels done to you.
A lot of the time, when something’s not working in your book, you have this gut feeling that something’s not quite right yet.
If you feel like something’s not right, you’re probably not done.
And conversely, you will probably also have a gut feeling when you are done, a sense that your book is doing what you want it to do.
So listen to your gut. Do a gut check and see how you feel about your book: do you feel like there’s something missing? Or do you feel really proud, like you’ve created the work of art you set out to create?
That’s my first answer: your book is done when it feels done to you.
Then, Shift Your Measurement From Subjective to Objective
But if you’ve listened to this podcast for more than a couple episodes, you know I am not satisfied to approach writing and editing from a purely subjective standpoint. “This feels done” is not enough for me.
I believe in combining the subjective with the objective and finding as many ways as possible to make your editing process objective.
So let’s go deeper than “it feels right”
Now, there are a lot of factors that go into determining whether a book is done.
I thought for a long time about this question and really considered all the things I look at to evaluate whether a book is working or not, whether the story is ready to publish.
And I did create a list for you, because I can’t help but make lists of objective measures for how stories work. This is what I do for fun.
But there’s one overarching principle I want to share with you that supersedes that whole list.
And to explain why I believe it’s so important, I’m going to walk you through a line of logic here, so stick with me.
The Biggest Sign That Your Book Is Done
Your book is done when you’re ready to publish, right?
And your book is ready to publish when it accomplishes the goal you set out for it.
And that goal could be a number of things. But I’m guessing it’s some version of the following:
You want to make your readers feel something. You want them to love your story and have a moving emotional response to it.
And not just any emotional response. “Ew, that book was bad” is an emotional response, but probably not the one you’re going for.
There’s a specific experience you want to create for your readers.
Your book is ready to publish when it creates that specific experience for your readers.
This is an others-focused metric.
You cannot know in your own head how other people are responding to your story.
The only way to know how other people are responding to your story is to share it with them.
So the principle here is that in order to be able to tell whether your book is done, you’ll need to get feedback.
That might mean feedback from an editor or a book coach. (I highly recommend getting this kind of professional feedback.) Or it might mean feedback from alpha readers, critique partners, or beta readers.
If you’re wondering where to start getting feedback, check out 5 Ways to Get Feedback on Your Writing for Free.
But anticipate that getting feedback from others is a step that you’ll need to take in order to know whether your book is ready for publication.
And keep in mind that eventually, you WILL get feedback from readers.
That feedback will come in the form of Amazon reviews, Goodreads reviews, etc.
And at that point, you’ll discover whether your book is creating the experience for readers that you want it to create.
In order to know ahead of time, before you publish, whether your book is accomplishing that, be sure to get feedback before you publish.
Even More Ways to Know When You’re Finished
So now we have two ways to know your book is done and ready to publish:
- YOU have a gut feeling that your book is done
- OTHER PEOPLE are telling you that it’s working
Now, as an editor, I’m often the person writers turn to to help them figure out when their books are done.
And when I’m trying to figure that out, I definitely look for both things I just mentioned: I watch my own gut feeling about the book and I check in with the writer to see how they feel about it, and then when we think it’s ready to go, we send it off to beta readers to make sure it’s landing the way we want it to.
But while these are probably the most important ways to tell your book is finished, they are not the only things I rely on.
I DO evaluate a number of aspects of a book to determine whether the story development is finished and it’s ready to move forward to the next stage.
And because I love to make the subjective objective and the implicit explicit, I have a list of nine objective questions you can use to evaluate your book, too.
Plus, because I love to make checklists and worksheets, I’ve also compiled this list of questions into a checklist you can download. Click here and enter your email, and you can grab that checklist. Get the checklist, save it, print it out, and use it to help you determine when you’ve finished editing your novel and when you still have something more to do.
I’m also going to go through each question here in this episode.
I’m not going to go into a ton of detail about each question, because honestly, each one could be a podcast episode of its own.
But I will point you to other episodes that will give you more context on some of these questions.
And where I have questions that don’t have accompanying episodes, well, I’ll probably talk about them in more detail in later podcast episodes.
So be sure to follow the podcast so you get all those episodes as I create them!
9 Signs Your Book Is Done
All right, let’s get to these questions, starting with question one:
1. Is your word count appropriate for your genre, audience, and publication path?
Starting with a simple, straightforward question—although this can be one of the hardest to get right. If you’ve ever had to cut ten thousand or fifty thousand words out of your novel to get it down to a publishable length, you know the struggle
But this is a super important consideration to keep in mind, especially if you’re planning to traditionally publish, where the expectations for novel lengths are very clear and where the competition for attention from agents and publishers is steep.
If you’re a debut author and your book is much longer or much shorter than the typical length for your genre and audience, publishers are not going to be incentivized to take a risk on it.
So is your word count appropriate?
2. Does your story establish a character want and character need at the beginning of the story, spend the middle pursuing that goal, and pay it off with either achieving or failing to achieve that want and need in the climax and resolution?
That’s a really big, long, hefty question, I know. But it’s so important.
Essentially, what I’m asking here is, do your plot and character development work? But I added in a lot more specificity to define what I mean by “work.”
I’ll repeat the question so you can hear it again:
Does your story:
- Establish a character want and character need at the beginning of the story,
- Spend the middle pursuing that goal,
- And pay it off with either achieving or failing to achieve that want and need in the climax and resolution?
If you want to go into this in more depth, I recommend three episodes for you:
- How to Identify Your Protagonist’s Want and Need (And Why Those Matter to Your Plot)
- 4-Act Structure: The Simple Structure to Edit Your Novel (And Why 3 Acts Aren’t Enough)
- One Insidious Cause of Disappointing Endings (and How to Fix It)
3. Does your story establish a value at stake that begins one way at the start of your story and resolves another way at the end of your story?
Or to put it more simply, does something change in your story?
Value shifts are such an important part of story.
So I highly recommend that you go check out Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story.
4. Are the six elements of story present in every scene?
Story structure involves six elements:
Inciting incident, progressive complications, turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution
You’ll find those at play in the course of a novel as a whole. You’ll find them within each act. And you’ll find them in every scene.
When I’m developmentally editing with a writer, I start big-picture and work my way to a narrower focus. First, we look at the arc of the whole novel. Then, we find the six elements in every act. And then as we go scene-by-scene through a novel, we build the six elements into every single scene.
Do all of your scenes include these elements?
Yes, in this question, I’m inviting you to go scene by scene through your story and evaluate every single one to find the six elements. And yes, this process takes a lot of time and a lot of deep thought. I know because I do it!
But let me tell you: this process is SO rewarding. You will discover so much about your story by examining every scene for the six elements.
For more on these elements and how to make sure your scenes are working, I recommend the following episodes:
- What Is a Scene? The Ultimate Guide to Write and Edit Amazing Scenes
- The 6 Essential Elements of Every Novel, Act, and Scene
- Scene Structure: How the 6 Elements of Story Work in the First Scene of How to Train Your Dragon
5. Have you raised the stakes in every scene so they’re as high as you can make them while still being appropriate for your story?
Once the structure of a novel as a whole is set, then one of my favorite things to do is to go through the story and raise the stakes.
From start to finish, I look for ways to make things more exciting, more intense, more risky, more impactful.
Now, “how do you raise the stakes of a story” is a big question, and it’s something that I’ll be tackling in a later episode of Your Next Draft.
But the first step is to establish the stakes. And for that, I’ll point you back to Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story.
For now, let’s go on to question six:
6. Is your story consistent?
There are a lot of things that you want to be consistent in your story:
Is the point of view consistent?
Is the timeline consistent?
Is the cast of characters consistent? Or is there someone you introduce in the beginning that you just forgot about midway through the book, or a new character who walks into the book partway through with no introduction like they’ve been there all along?
You could put more things under this umbrella, too—consistent in your descriptions, consistent rules for your magic system, consistent setting and locations, etc.
If your book finds an audience of readers who love it very deeply, those readers will discover any inconsistencies you have hiding in your story. So put in the detail work to make sure that your story is consistent!
7. Do all your subplots both have something to incite them and resolve by the end of the novel?
This question is all about loose ends.
It’s so easy to introduce an idea at the beginning of your story and then forget that it ever happened by the middle as the story develops. Or to have a brilliant idea halfway through that you then will need to go back to set up in the beginning.
Look for loose ends and tie them up!
8. Is the style of your story aligned with what you want it to be?
I’m using this as an umbrella question for all the elements that ride the line between developmental editing and line editing. This includes:
- Is your dialogue realistic?
- Have you captured the voice of the protagonist or narrator?
- Do you have the right balance of showing and telling?
- The right amount of description and exposition?
Essentially, first, you need to make sure that your story works: that the plot is solid, the characters are well-developed, the structure is clear.
And then you get to refine the language you use to tell the story. Both steps are important to create a book that your readers will love.
Which brings me to the final question, a familiar one by now:
9. Does your story make your readers feel the way you want them to feel?
Yep, this brings us all the way back to the beginning. You’ll know that your book is ready to publish when it accomplishes the goal you’ve set for it. And for novelists, the goal I hear most often is that you want your readers to feel something.
So does your story do that? If you share it with beta readers, does it make them feel the way you want them to feel?
For more on this, check out these episodes:
- How Spider-Man (And All Great Stories) Makes Us Laugh, Cry, and Feel the Feels
- The 3-Step Formula to Evoke Emotion and Make Your Readers Feel
Your Book Might Be Done When . . .
- You can answer yes to all the previous questions, and
- Your book is creating that experience for your readers that you want them to have, and
- You have a gut feeling that your book is ready to go . . .
. . . then congratulations. You’re ready to publish!
If that sounds like a tall order, well . . . that’s because it is. It takes a lot of work and multiple drafts, sometimes even several years to get to this point.
And I’ll be honest: sometimes it’s really tough to tell when a book has reached this point. You could tinker with your story forever trying to get it perfect.
Is it Possible to Over-Edit?
Which brings me to one more part of Cate’s question: “I wonder if you can edit something too much, or edit the ‘soul’ out of it—is it possible to go too far?”
And here’s my answer right now, as of May 2023. I may change my mind or develop this more in the future, but here’s what I believe right now:
There is a point of diminishing returns to doing your own edits for many drafts without feedback from someone else.
You can tinker and make changes to your book for years and years, for dozens of drafts, and still have major problems that you haven’t addressed simply because without outside feedback, you aren’t yet seeing those problems.
At some point, you need to call someone else in to help you see what you’re not seeing yet. At some point, you have to test your writing by sharing it with someone else.
Your Finish Line Is up to You
Ultimately, you are the only person who can determine whether your book is done, whether it’s ready for publication, ready to share with your readers.
But it does get a little easier to make that call when you’ve shared it with others.
I hope the questions I’ve shared throughout this episode also help you determine when you’ve finished. Be sure to grab that checklist, by the way. Click right here to get it.
Like I said at the beginning, I think this is a question we’re all always trying to answer, and the answer is elusive and varies from person to person.
“Never Finished, Only Abandoned”
Because the thing is, at some point, you do have to make that call. At some point, you have to ship. You have to decide that you’re done. You have to publish.
As a perfectionist myself, I know how hard it is to ship a creative project—to accept that now you have to send it into the world and finally let it go.
You might have heard the phrase, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Well, I looked it up, and it was originally coined by French poet Paul Valéry. And I really love the full passage he wrote. So that’s what I’m going to leave you with here.
If you’re struggling to let go of your novel, remember Paul Valéry’s words:
“In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.”
I invite you to do the challenging creative work to craft the best story you possibly can, and I hope that the questions I asked in this episode help you determine what’s working and where your story still needs work before you publish.
And I invite you to one day have the courage to abandon that book to publication. Send it into the world. Call it the best work you can create at this specific moment in your life. And start writing your next book.
Happy editing—and when it’s time, happy abandoning!