A perfectly finished book?

WH Auden said: “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned,” and the same applies to a book. Writers often get so closely involved with their manuscripts that they fail to notice imperfections which are only too obvious to other readers.

Novels are sometimes submitted with fatal flaws in the plot, or characters who have different names or different eye colours in various parts of the text. Nonfiction books may contain inaccurate or ambiguous factual statements, and those dealing with knowledge in a rapidly-advancing field will be out of date by the time they are published; this problem is largely unavoidable and may necessitate frequent revisions.

On the technical side, typos and formatting errors can creep in at any stage of the book production process, so it is important to check the text carefully several times. I should know all this by now, but being impatient to publish my latest book Persons not diseases on Amazon I missed a couple of tiny but important errors – a date printed as 19919 instead of 1919, one wrong digit in the ISBN – and had to resubmit the files.

It is a good idea to ask at least one other person to read through the penultimate draft of your manuscript, and leave it aside yourself while this is happening, so that you can check through later with fresh eyes before submitting it for publication. Even if you choose to ignore some of their criticisms or suggestions, they may well pick up important shortcomings which you have missed because of your own over-familiarity with the text.

As with most things, balance is important and is possible to make too many changes in the attempt to make your manuscript perfect, or to get it accepted by a publisher. The faded typescript of my own first completed novel has languished in a box file for 30 years – after getting a series of rejections, coupled with just enough encouragement to make me persevere, I carried out multiple revisions but eventually got so tired of the whole thing that I gave it up. Although there was certainly plenty of scope for improving the first version, I think that by being swayed too much by others’ opinions and trying to make it conform with a standard formula, I lost the freshness and originality of the first draft.

After all, many wise men and women have pointed out that nothing in this world is completely perfect, and that sometimes this does not matter or may even be for the best. From Leonard Cohen:

“There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”


3 thoughts on “A perfectly finished book?

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