When Is a Book Really Finished Being Written?

My friends have often heard me say that I finish a book about five or six times. After editing and revising multiple times on my own, I turn it into a manuscript, usually chapter by chapter, to editors at our ministry. Doreen Button, Stephanie Anderson and Kathy Norquist edit many things I write. They’re great editors with different strengths and different eyes, who excel at seeing various weaknesses. They point out what they don’t understand, and suggest many corrections. I go along with most of them. After all the feedback I finish the chapters another time, and finally finish the whole book a second time and send it to the publisher. This article by my friend, author Jerry Jenkins, summarizes the whole process of writing and editing a book.

Typically, after what’s sometimes a wait of a couple of months (I welcome the break), I get input from the publisher’s in-house editor or outside freelance editor, and go over that. I follow many of his or her suggestions, choose not to follow some of them, and often come up with compromises between what I originally wrote and what they suggest. Then I “finish” the book the third time and turn it in as my final manuscript.

Sometimes there’s more back and forth with the editor, in which I receive and give more input still, negotiate and compromise, and finish the book a fourth time. Each of these times is less extensive than the previous. 

If a writer insists on seeing the fact checking and copyediting stage, which I do, then he must go over all of that. More changes and tweaks—maybe 90% of it is right on and helpful, and 10% is, in my opinion, misguided. But once again, even when it’s obvious they didn’t understand what I meant, it’s still helpful, because while I must reject some of their changes, I see what they were getting at, and improve the wording my own way, in keeping with my meaning. Then I finish the book for maybe the fifth time.

Next, the publisher sends me the galleys, the physical print-out, where they always say, “Changes at this stage are expensive, so please don’t make many.” And usually I make too many because I realize a sentence just doesn’t sound right, and why didn’t I see it earlier? And why didn’t multiple editors see it, not to mention the occasional misspelling? I shake my head in dismay sometimes, and write notes in the margin such as, “Who is the idiot who wrote this?” That idiot, of course, is me. :) Once again I have a couple of EPM staff go through the galleys and am always amazed to see that each of the three of us find errors that none of the others did! When we send that heavily marked up galley in to the editor, I’ve finished…for about the sixth time.

After the galleys, I hear back from the editor with further questions/clarifications and finish it a seventh time, only to wait to read the printed copies and find more errors and get emails from readers and submit corrections for the second edition, thereby “finishing” the book for the eighth time.

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the years about writing (and rewriting) is that it’s hard work. It’s energizing and draining, something I love to do and hate to do, something that’s never done because I can always continue to improve on it, but eventually I have to turn it in.

Sometimes I’ve said at writers’ conferences that while many people think they want to write a book, what they really want is to have written a book. (Sort of like the difference between wanting to be on a strict diet and exercise program so much that I actually choose to do it day in and day out, versus only wanting to have been disciplined enough to have done that in the past.)

But I think God called me to write and to develop the skill, so I do the hard work with a sense of purpose and calling and joy. And isn’t that what He’s called all of us to do, with the particular skills and opportunities He’s entrusted to us?

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24)

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries