News for Authors

How Do You Know When You’re Done Writing?

by MILENA SCHMIDT|August, 2015

At some point, every author has grappled with the question of how to know when you’re done writing your work-in-progress. From obsessing over the last few lines to getting lost in endless revisions, it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed the finish line from manuscript to final book. We asked Penguin Random House authors and editors to share how they know a book is truly done.


Trust Your Subconscious 

“I find that I’m done with a book when my subconscious mind is no longer working on it. When I stop thinking about it when I’m running. Or if I’m in the grocery store staring at avocados and a great idea about the book doesn’t just spring into my head. Or if I’m no longer waking up in the middle of the night with an urgent need to write down some dialogue. When those little moments stop happening, I know I’m done.” (Author)


Achieve a Book’s Best Expression

“Quite honestly, I don’t know if a book is ever done. When you’ve lived with something for multiple drafts and months of your life, you can always see things that can be made better. Time and time again, I’ll have authors send me reprint corrections that are just about fine-tuning words, and none of them is wrong, but most of the time they’re unnecessary. For me, it’s time to let go of a book when those tweaks and changes are not adding anything significantly meaningful to a work. A book is done when it’s the best expression of what it can be.” (Editor)


Room for Improvement

“The deadline arrives. Ask my editor; I never, never, never turn in anything early. This may well mean I’m still working on it, but it may also mean I want to give the masterpiece just one more look. And I can guarantee that ‘just one more look’ will reveal something that needs improving. Ideally, I like to finish a book a month early, let the manuscript sit for that month without ever looking at a word of it, then give it another run-through. I always get a surprise. It may be the plot, the characters, the setting, or just an awkward sentence. But everything can stand another look. When I can’t find anything else to improve, it’s done. If that time ever arrives.” (Author)


Follow Your Instincts

“This may sound like a cop-out, but a lot of knowing when a book is ready is instinct. On the most basic level: the editor reads so many passes of an author’s work, and the bottom line is that the book is not ready until one of the passes comes in and I don’t have a single note to make. Another question that is often indicative is what happens when the publisher or publicity director or someone in sales asks if they can read the book. If I feel good about sharing it, it’s ready—or close to ready. If I immediately feel panic, it is clear that it still needs work.” (Editor)


Quit While You’re Ahead

“As a guy who spent ten years writing one book, I’m a bit of an expert on the revision process. My advice: stop at year nine—that’s usually enough time to hit the main points. Seeking more practical guidance? Stop writing when you notice your most recent changes have made matters worse, not better.” (Author)


It’s All in the Delivery

“When editing nonfiction, I feel the book is done when it delivers on its promise: it communicates its information in the most pleasing and effective way, and has answered the readers’ anticipated questions. With fiction, you also want to deliver what the reader wants, but that’s often the opposite: to be surprised and taken to unexpected places! In both cases, I’m there to push the author to go a little deeper, sometimes over and over again. When you get back diminishing returns, you know it’s finished.” (Editor)


Read, Edit, Repeat

“While writing the book, I edit along the way. When I get to the end of the story, then the real work begins. I start at the beginning and analyze each scene and chapter for continuity of time, place, emotion, or anything else that might be out of whack. After those changes, I do one more read-through to make sure it’s all working. Usually at this point, the book is done . . . until I get back the edits. Then I repeat, making sure to analyze and read until all the edits are accepted.” (Author)


The Tipping Point

“How do I know when we’re done with a book? When the writer and I simply can’t bring ourselves to look at it one more time. But really, there always comes a point at which the whole thing tips, and you suddenly start wondering if instead of making a piece of writing better, you are actually making it worse. You mess with it and mess with it and mess with it, and it gets better and stronger . . . and then it starts to lose something. That’s when I know we’re done.” (Editor)


Completed To-do List

“I knew I was done when I read straight through a draft of my manuscript and realized I had fixed all the things on my ongoing mental ‘to-fix’ list. Nothing had given me enough pause to stop my read-through. That was a good day!” (Author)


Only the Author Knows

”The most important thing to keep in mind is that ultimately it’s the author’s book, with their name on the cover, not the editor’s. While I will always ask for the revisions and edits that I think will make a manuscript the best book it can be, at the end of the day only the author can know when they are done.” (Editor)


Learn to Let Go

“There is only one way I know I am done writing: when I am holding the finished hardcover in my hands for the first time and it is finally crystal clear that begging for a comma to be removed on page 134 will eventually, ultimately, mercifully do me no good.” (Author)


Milena Schmidt is part of the Consumer Marketing Development and Operations Group.