Being a Better Writer: When Do You Publish?

We’re going to do a shorter one today, folks, so that I can get back to editing (post-edit: It was not that short). Or rather, I’m going to keep it short. So that I can get back to, well, my bit in the topic at hand. Because this is the process I’ve been going through for a few weeks now.

Okay, so let’s just say it outright: How do you know when to publish something? What’s the point where you sit back and say “this is ready?” How do you know when you’ve reached that point?

Well … I’ll be honest, this is one of those answers that’s probably a little different for everyone, where each author is going to have their own “stance” on what being ready to publish actually means, or what “being published actually entails.” For example, for some authors, being “ready to publish” may mean “This story is ready to send to my editors and start the process.” while for others, like myself, it can mean “This story is ready to sell to the public.”

In addition to that, the “when” has a bit of a broad meaning in addition to what can be meant by “publish,” based on the context of that publish. The first one, the “send to the editors” one, is going to have a whole different set of criteria from the second, because, well, after all, what you send to your editors is going to be far different from what you send to the buying public. So in that context “knowing” that a story is ready is going to be different.

So let’s break these down and talk about them separately. Starting with the earlier one: How do you know your story is ready for editors?

Now, brief warning here. Much of what I say right here, on this bit of the topic? Guidelines, not gospel. This is one of those areas that’s going to be a little different for everyone involved. Some authors like to involve an editor as early in the process as possible, and get the ball rolling toward publication quickly. Others—like myself—wait a bit until the draft is more complete. So take what I say here with a grain of salt, but personally … You want to involve an editor and start getting the book ready to publish the moment when your own polishing is becoming counter-intuitive.

Okay, let’s talk about that for a minute, because I’ll admit it’s a little nebulous. A better way to think of it might be the moment where you start seeing exceedingly diminishing returns working on your own work.

Still not clear? All right, let’s try an example. Say you sit down and spend Nanowrimo writing out a 90,000 word novel. Any genre, doesn’t matter. But it’s about 300 pages, and it’s your novel draft.

But, naturally, it has problems. There’s a point near chapter seven where things just don’t make sense, even to you. There are a couple of motivations you’re unsure about. And you even have a chapter that’s just marked “They escape” with a note that you need to come back and write this bit in later (which some authors do, and it works for them just fine).

The thing is, these are clear problems that you’ve already identified. You know right where they are, and you likely have a decent idea of how to fix them.

These are not problems to send to an editor. Not if you can immediately think “Well, I know roughly how I’m going to fix this.” So you sit down, edit, and look back over your creation.

Now you notice some deeper problems. Some character inconsistencies, some areas where stuff doesn’t make sense.

Editor time? Nope, not yet. First, you need to try your hand at fixing them. It might take a little work, but press yourself. Because the truth is that an editor isn’t (or shouldn’t be) someone you view as a distant figure to “solve your problems for you.” If you can fix a problem, then you should. Or at least, you should try.

It’s when you think that there aren’t any problems left (and you’ve looked) or when you’ve reached the point where you’re not finding any solution that you take that step to an editor.

Don’t get me wrong, some editors make good money fixing obvious problems with obvious solutions for some lazy writers, but if you’re trying to be a writer in the first place, being lazy really isn’t in the picture unless you’re not a writer.

But that point aside, the idea here for “when do I start the publication process” is when you either A) cannot find any more problems with your manuscript (don’t worry, someone will) or B) are having difficulty finding a solution to the problems you do know about, but are determined that there is one. You just know it might take you an inordinate amount to time to find it on your own, without external help. So much time that you could be partway into writing another book by the time you fixed it.

This is the “constant revising” trap that’s almost an extension of the “death spiral” I’ve spoken of before, just taken to the end product. With the difference of rather than holding up a work from ever being done, in this case it’s holding up a “completed” work with endless revision and hunts for a solution to a problem, constantly tweaking and rewriting segments until almost as much time has been spent editing it as was working on writing it in the first place.

Are you stuck in this rut? Get an editor. At the very least, they’ll point out some obvious problems you didn’t know you had through inexperience and you’ll have something to work on once again that will actually take it forward.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Odds are that if you’re constantly caught in this editing revision cycle, of working again and again on polishing a manuscript, you’re probably making small, incremental improvements (probably, as sometimes writers, especially young ones, have blind spots about their own work). But there’s a point where what you’re effectively doing is polishing the wax job on a Toyota Corolla you’ve built so that the wax is one seamless, smooth polish, when instead what you should be doing is selling that Corolla and getting to work on a Mercedes.

Do you get the analogy there? It’s not that a layer of polish is bad, but that you’re effectively spending too much time polishing something that isn’t going to gain much from the polish. And meanwhile, the first editor who looks at it might say “Well, you’ve got a dent there, that’s why you thought you needed that polish. But if we bat that out, you won’t need to keep polishing there.”

Crud, to add even more to that, there’s a point where polish is pointless. For example, I often get people asking me why I do Alpha editing (structural) before I start doing dedicated Beta editing (typos, misspellings, etc), inferring (or on many occasions asking) why I would bother working with something that had typos, misspellings, etc, and not fix them. My answer is that there’s no point in my spending several hours or more carefully proofreading a chapter for typos, double spaces, and the like if the next day the chapter is cut from the book.

So again, bringing everything back around, how do you know when to publish, insofar as an editor goes as becoming part of the process the answer is “When you’re no longer able to get out of a manuscript what you put in.” There’s room for movement inside that answer, I understand, but that’s fine because there’s going to be a little bit of leeway for everyone to figure out what that point is. But once you’ve reached the point where work on something is amounting to almost spinning your wheels in the mud, get an editor.

Wait, hang on. Maybe not. I’m going to make one caveat here. If you can see someone—and I mean really see someone—purchasing this book and being happy with it, or if you want to get an editor to mark for you where you could improve with more honesty than you yourself could have and are willing to spend the money simply for that improvement, then yes, get an editor. But if not, if you say no to either of those things? Maybe it’s time to move to the next project and chalk this one up as a learning experience. They are real things, and every author has them. Projects, books, stories, etc, that will never see the light of day (unless, of course, they sold their soul to a publisher, and that publisher mines out all their bad material after they’ve died).

But yes, sometimes you’re spinning your tires and need an editor to get your book to the next level and ready for the public. And sometimes … the book simply isn’t what we want it to be. I have whole story and book drafts sitting on my harddrive that never got published because even after going over them and working on them, there were issues with them so deep that they didn’t meet my standards and I knew it wasn’t worth “fixing” them as much as it was rebuilding them at a later date into completely different stories.

Okay, so that’s one side of this equation. Look for an editor and start that process once your own polish is no longer going to be fruitful or you suspect you’re missing the larger picture (it happens). But what about the latter end of this equation, the one that I’m certain more of you aspiring authors are interested in when you think of “publication.” What about delivering on the “public” part of publication? IE, the selling of your book to the masses? How do you know when a book is ready for that?

When it’s done.

Okay, that’s a cop-out of an answer. But there is truth to it. You don’t want to release a book half-baked. Publish when the book is done, not before. When the typos have been fixed, when the plot’s been double-checked, when the plotholes have been filled, etc etc etc.

Except … it’s not that simple. Which is where things are about to get interesting. See, the first thing you have to realize is that we come back again to the comparison made with the Toyota Corolla above. Yes, you can polish and polish, and get the dings out of the body work, and tune the suspension, and so on until infinity. But there comes a point where you’re tuning the camber a tenth of a degree to the left or right—actually, I’ve been playing a lot of Forza Horizon 3 over the last few months, so let’s go with a non-allegorical example—or you’re trying to decide between one of two words in a sentence where both are perfectly fine, where you’re really just splitting hairs where it’s no longer needed. You’re putting too much time into it. Sure, there might still be a few small mistakes, but if the structure is sound, the characters are consistent, so on and so forth, than one or two words here or there aren’t as big a deal as you might think.

Now, I can already hear some of you disagreeing. “But,” you might be saying, “my books are going to be competing with all the books out there, and those books are released with no errors at all! What if I have a typo? Or a misspelling?”

Relax. While there is some truth that if you’re going indie, you’re going to be held to a much higher standard than a trad-pub novel, the truth is that most books out there, even in their fourth, fifth, or seventh printings … are actually going to have errors or rough spots. When you put together a book of 100,000 words, or 200,000 words, or crud, even 50,000 words, even when dozens of eyes look it over, the odds of finding one typo are … well, the figurative needle in a haystack comes to mind. Which is why you can still find typos in published books: they’re hard to weed out!

Crud, published works can’t even claim to be perfect in other areas. Just last night I finished a book that’s won numerous awards since it came out—and to be fair, it was a very good book, I’m not saying it wasn’t—and still found some rough spots. One line in particular made me stop cold and go “Wait, did their editor really let that past?” and rattled off an immediate fix that was much easier on the eyes and in line with the writing of the book, but … you know what? It didn’t keep the book from winning those awards. And while they could have fixed it, how many other much more serious issues did they devote time to rather than fixing something that was passable rather than great?

You’ll have to make the same decisions for your own works—and mind, that’s going to come down to you and your editors. There have been moments where I’ve agonized over a change, over something as small as a single phrase, while editing, for upwards of ten, twenty minutes, before taking a step back and realizing it was effectively a choice of buffing clockwise or counterclockwise in the end. It didn’t really matter that much in the sum of things.

In essence, how do you know when you’re ready to publish? When there’s not much more you can squeeze from the stone. Just like editing on your own before you send your work before moving on to an editor (or editors), you’re going to reach a point where you look at your manuscript and how far it’s come and go “There’s not much more I can do with this.”

Does it mean you’ve found every typo? Of course not. I’ve got a “revision” edition of every book I’ve ever written on my hard drive, as every so often a reader will find something no one else has noticed, notify me about it, and I’ll poke my head into the revision, make the change, and then once I’ve collected a few or enough time has passed, I’ll upload it and swap out the older version for the corrections.

But each of those books has already gone out into the wild. Had I spent a few months more editing them … I might have found some of those few typos. But at that point, we’re talking months of work for such an insignificant return, it wasn’t worth it at all. Instead, I released the books anyway, and hey, turns out that the public liked them even with a few typos on the pages, just like any other book. The story is sound, the characters are sound, the book is fun to read, and it’s 99.99% clean of errors.

You can’t antagonize over that .01%. It’s not worth it, financially. Because even after you find it, there’s still the .004%. Or the .0001%, that single misplaced space at the end of a paragraph you’re only going to find by reading the entire manuscript backwards with the formatting icons turned on.

Why would you do that when you could be writing the next book, and 99.999% of readers will not notice it, ever. Some even if you found it and pointed it out to them would still have trouble noticing it.

So pulling everything back, all the way back to this initial question of ‘When do you publish?” the best answer is when it’s done, you know people will enjoy it, and you’ve trimmed it as much as you can.

You don’t release a book that’s 100% perfect. But you don’t release one that’s 70% perfect, or even 90% perfect (barring some publishers, I think). You go over it yourself until you spin your wheels, and then you pass it on to your editor(s). From there, you take it to 98%, or even 99.5%. You polish that thing.

But eventually, you will reach a point where the more you do, the less you’re going to get out of it. The more you work at that point, the less you get from it, and you will have to decide “This is good enough. I need to work on something else now and either put this book away, or sell it. One of the two.”

If you reach that point, and your book doesn’t deserve to be locked away for some reason … then it’s time to publish that sucker! Go for it, and throw it out into the wild. Somewhat gently.

One last bit before we’re good for the day. Obviously a lot of what I’ve said here is a bit … subjective. But the truth is, I can’t look you in the eye, glance at your manuscript or hear your pitch and say “Perfect, sell that!” or “That’s not great, don’t publish that.” I can’t. This is a call you have to make. Is your book ready for thousands upon thousands of eyes to potentially be on it? Is it prepared to be read by dozens of viewpoints, theorists, and those just along for the ride. Is it ready for the tide of public opinion?

Only you know. You have to be the one to make that call. It’s up to you to know when you’re simply retreading old ground and when you’re improving something … and when that something is as ready as you can make it.

And then? Well … you let it fly free, celebrate … and get to work on the next project.

For those of you waiting in the wings? It’s time to make that call. Those of you that have never gotten that far? Well … get to the point of maybe needing an editor first. Focus on the steps, not the endgame.

Good luck. Now get writing. And publishing.

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