All Done, or Not?

All Done, or Not?

Deciding when your story is ready to submit.

March 7, 2019


One of the most satisfying things about writing is finishing a book or story. That last line typed, that last period placed almost always brings a rush of accomplishment. If you're like most of us, there are plenty of pieces you've started and never finished, so finishing deserves some applause all by itself. But it also means you've reached one of the most dangerous points in the writing process, because finishing a story often comes with an inner pressure to get the story out into the world. After all, most of us write with the goal of being read. This means we feel that pressure to submit as soon after finishing a story as possible. Unfortunately there are few better ways to get a rejection letter. (Or worse. After all many publishers simply say nothing at all if you send something they don't want. And you get to wait all that time only to be left wondering: did they read it? Did they hate it? Are they just holding onto it while they decide? What do I do?)

Slow Down and Celebrate

The first thing to do upon finishing a story or book or article is to set it aside and celebrate. Hey, you finished it. And it represents the culmination of everything you've learned about writing up to this point. And you're possibly at least a little bit in love with it. So take a moment to celebrate. I'm a huge fan of presents, so give yourself a gift. Do something you enjoy (read for pleasure, watch your guilty pleasure show, sip some wine, or savor a bit of chocolate) as a reward for sticking with this piece to the end. Also, I strongly recommend going ahead and posting about it online (but only if you have supportive friends and family). Whenever I post about finishing something, I get so many congratulations that I feel a little guilty. But it also gives me some emotional boost for the hard work ahead.

Work? I thought I Just Finished the Work!
Writing is work. That's totally true. And sticking with a piece all the way to the end is a big job in terms of creative and emotional energy. But it's not all the work you need to do. Now you need to start revisions and that needs to be a slow, careful, and focused activity. If you rush through it, you're not giving the piece the polish it needs to have the best chance of publication.

Revision isn't the same for everyone. My first revision pass is removing all the verbal tics that creep into my writing because they're part of my normal speech patterns. So I go through and cull out like, certainly, definitely, really, just, and other such words that pop into everything I write. I don't have to remove all of them, but I have to look at all of them to be sure they are existing for a purpose and not simply because it's part of my normal speech pattern. If I'm doing a fairly casual essay (like this one) that is supposed to sound like me, I'll be more generous in allowing tics. After all, they are part of who I am. But in my fiction and my informational nonfiction, I'll clear out every single one that doesn't serve a clear purpose in the line where it appears.

My next revision pass in fiction is always breaking the piece into sections and addressing just one section per day. I'll go after the section with an eye to more of my writing weaknesses: am I setting the scene clearly enough? Am I considering the physicality of the character enough? Does my dialogue include both voices and action? Also I can get caught up in a scene and not give enough thought to pacing. Does the pacing in the scene match the emotion I'm attempting to convey and create. If my pace is too fast, I'll put in more scene and detail. If my pace is too slow, I'll tighten up sentence length.

Be the Tortoise, not the Hare
The pressure to get something out there and into submission can be crushing during the revision process. That is one of the reasons my revision process has very clear, set stages designed to keep me from going too fast and overlooking things. I have things in my process geared to my specific writing weaknesses. I also have global process tips that will help any writer, such as reading the work aloud and making a full read with an eye to continuity. You'd be amazed at how many stories editors receive where character names aren’t spelled in a consistent way or where physical details of a character change during the story. If a tall, willowy kid complains about being short and squat, the reader is going to wonder if he has some kind of body image issue and why nothing is being done about it.

Take your time in revision. Don't be afraid to rewrite parts of it. I often rewrite opening scenes or closing scenes during the revision process. I'll do it in a whole new document. Writing the opening after you know the whole story so intimately can be a revealing step during a revision. Revision is a very personal thing and your revision process will change over time as you come to know yourself as a writer more and more. The key to using it to its best advantage is to take it slow. And do more than one pass. Few if any decent revisions were ever done in a single pass.

Slow and steady. And in the end, you'll be a winner.

Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.


Janis Fields
March 15, 2019

Hi Robin -- In a lot of ways, getting a writing career going is like pushing a very large rock down a hill. Getting it moving at all takes a long time and a lot of effort. But eventually it will speed up. It may hit some potholes and get stuck for bit, but just keep pushing. All of us get frustrated by where our career is at. But it sounds like you're giving yourself the time you need, so that's exactly the right move.

Robin Newman
March 8, 2019

I appreciate this Jan. Sometimes I feel I am too slow. It seems everyone in 12x12 and other places are just brimming with ideas and seeming success. It's so fast. I just want to withdraw in response. I feel like I am being "pushed and rushed" to accomplish. I feel like I can't keep up. I'm just getting started...

Janis Fields
March 7, 2019

Hi Nancy -- that's a tough call. I do it by working a procedure, step by step, and then eventually letting it go. Really, there is no book that couldn't be improved but eventually you do have to let it out in the world. So the answer is that it's never done, but sometimes YOU have to be done. And only you can make a call for when that is. I know one author says that when she's down to taking something out one day and putting it back the next, she knows she's done. But I think it's personal for each author. Hi Donna -- it sounds to me like you're actually writing something other than a picture book. I've heard so many agents and so many acquiring editors who say it's not uncommon to receive something the author thought was a picture book that actually turned out to need the breathing room of a chapter book or a middle grade novel. I know Andrew Clements had that experience with one of his books. He thought his story was meant to be a picture book, but when he let is go and let it become what it was meant to be, he ended up with a very successful middle grade novel. So the short answer is no, even the publishers (like Peachtree) who will consider long picture books draw the line well before that. But since it's clearly meant to grow, see if you can see what it really wants to be. Hi Tiffany -- thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you found it helpful.

Tiffany Dickinson
March 7, 2019

This is helpful. I appreciate the contrasts of taking it in sections AND reading it as a whole. Thank you!

Donna Seim
March 7, 2019

Thanks, Jan. I am exactly there right now, revision. I am struggling with word count. Every time I tighten the story, I find I add more to flush the story out. I keep ending up with close to 1900 words. It is a picture book for 4 to 8 years. I feel the new additions add to the storyline, increasing action and dialogue. Do you recommend shaving it down or would it be okay to have that many words in a picture storybook?

Nancy Hather
March 7, 2019

Thank you Jan for the phenomenal advice. With my first book I did make all those mistakes...sent it to early, pitched it too early. My second I went to a writing conference and realized what an overhaul it needed. My third, I have re-written the beginning and another whole chapter. I'm working on the tics and reading aloud. Also I've had critique group for every chapter of every book. How do you know when enough is enough? I miss the day to day of a new project, but do have trouble maintaining my focus of revision if I'm doing something new. How do you know when it's done?

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