Essential writing skills: knowing when to stop writing and start publishing

One of the biggest challenges for writers is knowing when to stop. When to let the book go and move on to the next. But it’s tricky. Even hard publisher deadlines don’t stop some authors from tinkering. Or even re-casting.

I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Foreground is Denis Glover's plaque from the Wellington Writers' Walk; background, HMNZS Te Kaha at quayside, Te Papa national museum background (the Tracy Island look-alike).
I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Denis Glover’s plaque from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

That’s why contracts carry amendment clauses. Once a manuscript’s been proofed, everything that changes adds cost to the publisher. The threshold I’ve usually seen for author amendments is five or ten percent of the book, after which the cost of re-editing and re-typesetting is levelled on the author.

The cost calculation is true for self-publishing too (you want to get paid for your time…don’t you?).

And that’s apart from the problems that follow when you’re interrupting the editing process with changes. Trust me – that’s how errors arrive. Unwelcomed. Unheralded. But they’re gonna crash your party.

The point to stop, then, is when the manuscript’s ready for publication. Then it can go through proof- and line-editing, typesetting and so forth without becoming a movable feast and without sending costs through the roof.

Of course it’s easy to say “just stop”. The harder part is stopping. The reason authors tinker is because the work hasn’t attained the conceptual perfection of the idea in their minds. And it’s an endless task, because these things never do. The point to stop, then, is where you are satisfied that your writing takes your reader on the emotional journey you intend. This point is true of all writing, not just fiction. My tips:

1. Starting right makes it easier to stop. If you structurally plan your writing, figure out what you want to say before putting finger to keyboard, you’ll know when it’s finished.
2. Command of styling is essential. That takes practise – and don’t be afraid to put the hours in getting that practise.
3. Get feedback – put your work out to ‘Beta Readers’.
4. Be confident in yourself. Don’t succumb to self-doubt.

What experiences have you had with ‘stopping’ – and how have you dealt with it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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8 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: knowing when to stop writing and start publishing

    1. The biggest problem for authors is proximity; as creator of their writing, they’re intimately close to it. And familiarity, alas, breeds contempt. That’s true for ALL authors. The ‘put it in a drawer for a month’ principle helps, if the time’s available. That’s also where feedback from external readers – and, ultimately, editors – comes in.


  1. Mathematics were a thorn in my side in school, but visually I’ve always remembered the line that approaches 100%, but never reaches it (I don’t remember the math involved, but the picture endures). Instead, the line chases 100% into infinity. That’s what reaching for literary perfection amounts to. That road to infinity might as well be the road to nowhere, especially if publishing depends upon it. Sure, the writer’s early stages see steep growth as they learn the craft. I’ve long been on that climbing line, but there comes a point when it’s time to say, “enough.” I’m there. This is the year. 🙂


    1. You’re right – the learning curve flattens. But that concept in your mind – the perfection of the written word and the emotional response it elicits – always remains elusive. That’s true of all writers, and I think it’s when writers really push for that ideal, pushing the edges of the field, that great writing emerges.


  2. Yet another important post for writers as this often feels like a line in the sand, especially early in writing. Can’t begin to count the number of times I thought a piece was ready and it was not. I am so grateful that for one reason or another–usually, one or more that you have listed–that particular version got revised. By no means do I have this mastered but I am more familiar with my writing process so I am more realistic in my writing goals and therefore, the projects I attempt. One of the many perks of aging, for me, is recognizing that publishing is just one goal in writing and is not for every piece. Very helpful post, Matthew.


    1. It’s often a fine line between deciding when a work’s ready and when it isn’t. I suspect, too, that while there is a popular supposition that authors are their own worst critics, preferring to hold back work they feel isn’t right – which to others is brilliant – the reality is, I think, that authors are the very people to make that judgement. As you say, sometimes publication is not for every piece. My example (inevitably) is Tolkien, who I think knew very well that much of his material was ‘back-story’ and not really intended to see the light of day. It has, anyway, and I can’t help thinking that he would have been horrified by the quantity of ‘first drafts’ and other material to do so. Some of it is distinctly dubious, as Tolkien himself well knew.


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