A plan for the penultimate draft: taking your book from good to great

Photo: Stewart Dawson via Flickr

When your book is complete but not done, you have an opportunity. You can make it excellent. Or you can stagger across the finish line and spend the next few months dealing with unnecessary bullshit. This post is about how to crush it on that penultimate draft.

This advice is for writers of non-fiction books, specifically business and how-to books. Whatever your writing process is, you’ve got a deadline: the moment when your book is supposed to go to the copy editor.

If you are on track to have your first complete draft on that copy edit date, you are making a big mistake.

Here’s why.

Writing what are likely ten or fifteen chapters — 50,000 or 75,000 words — over the last few months, you may not have noticed it, but things have changed. Your idea of what is important may have changed. Your terminology may have changed. Your writing style may have shifted. It is at the moment of completion that you can finally look back on the whole edifice with a little perspective.

This is no time to shovel it off to the copy editor and heave a sigh of relief.

If you have ever seen or read about the Boston Marathon, you know there is a very challenging spot called “Heartbreak Hill” about five-and-a-half miles from the end of the course. Many runners don’t make it past Heartbreak Hill. But what matters is not whether you make over the top, but what you do in the last part of the race. You don’t crest Heartbreak Hill and then sit down and take a well-deserved rest. You smile and keep running, because the race isn’t over yet, and what you do in the next five miles determines how you finish.

Handing your first complete draft over to the copy editor is like giving up after getting to the peak of Heartbreak Hill. Yes, it’s fantastic that you got here. But if you want the race to end well, you’d better finish strong.

A plan for going from penultimate to ultimate

Ideally, you’d like to have at least three weeks from completion of the draft to handing it over to the copy editor. You have completed all the chapters, but you have not finished the book. Before we even get to this list of things to do, here are a few things that you should already have completed along with the chapters:

  • Nailed down the title. Changing the title at this stage is too disruptive. This is probably your last chance to change the subtitle, but you’re a lot better off if that’s settled, too.
  • Completed a cover. The cover design ends up as an icon for your book in places like Amazon.com and on your book’s website. If you’re wrangling about covers at the same time that you’re trying to put the finishing touches on the draft, you’ll go insane.
  • Told all the people you interviewed that it was “on the record.” You should have started every interview with a few words about the interview being on the record and what to expect for fact-checking. Going back and trying to do that now is not only wasteful, it makes it possible that they’ll withdraw their permission for you to tell their story.
  • Kept  track of sources. You kept track of the sources of all the facts you quoted, right? If you didn’t, you’ll need to spend your time re-researching things, which is wasteful.
  • Developed a consistent structure for chapters. Does every chapter start with a story and include a bulleted list of sections? Do you come back to the story throughout the chapter, or tie it off neatly before continuing? Is there a set of takeaways? Are there sidebars? These are things that you should have settled as your writing, because there’s not time to revise and reorder chapter content at this stage.
  • Settled any disputes between coauthors, or between authors and editors. There are always disagreements. That’s fine. But by now, you should have settled any thematic, stylistic, or personal beefs so you can move forward.

So what’s left to do? Here’s a plan.

Talk to the production staff.

What it is. Have a conversation with the people at the publisher who will be turning the manuscript into a book. There’s usually a production manager; this is the time to make friends with them.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. The production manager isn’t really paying attention until the manuscript is about to come in.

Why you need it now. It’s best not to surprise people: “Hey, guess what, here’s a manuscript!” They’ll react better if you’ve prepared them.

How to do it. Talk over what the elements in the book are and any things you expect to need help with (e.g. “Look for inconsistent technology and overuse of jargon.”) Discuss deadlines realistically. What are the chances you will miss yours?

Identify key themes and make them consistent.

What it is. Make a list of key concepts. Determine the exact, consistent terminology for each. There should be at most six or seven of these.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. You were doing it all along, but you may have changed your mind about some themes as you were working.

Why you need it now. This is crucial. It’s what makes the book hang together as a coherent whole instead of reading like a bunch of chapters thrown together.

How to do it. Once you have the list, weave them into the chapters. Determine where you will introduce each one. Then look for opportunities to refer to it throughout the rest of the book.

Wrangle duplicated content.

What it is. Find stories or concepts you’ve written about in a redundant way in multiple places.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. You forgot you already used something, or you realized it fit better in a later chapter rather than the way you used it in an earlier one.

Why you need it now. Repetition is boring and confusing. Using the same example in multiple places makes arguments sound weak and lacking in independent evidence.

How to do it. Figure out the place where each of these items works best. In the other places, just refer back to the original story briefly. Or replace the duplicated content with something different.

Make style consistent and excellent.

What it is. Identify things that need to be consistent across chapters (for example, terminology, or whether you refer to people by first or last names). Also, identify bad writing habits that need editing (for example, passive voice).

Why you didn’t do it sooner. Stylistic inconsistencies creep in. You were concentrating on the broad strokes and left these details for later.

Why you need it now. Let the copy editor concentrate on errors you missed, not the ones you already knew about and didn’t take the time to fix. The fewer errors the copy editor has to find, the less the likelihood that one will slip through.

How to do it. Read through each chapter looking for these problems, and fix them.

Write the front- and back-matter.

What it is. You need to write bits like the acknowledgments and “About the Authors” to have a finished draft. If you have an Introduction, this is when you write that, too.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. You were concentrating on the substantive content.

Why you need it now. The draft isn’t complete without it. These parts need to be copy edited, too.

How to do it. Just take a moment and write these. If you’ve got an assistant, they can help you remember everybody to put in the acknowledgments. I am not a fan of Introduction chapters (I think that stuff belongs in Chapter 1), but if you need one, take a few pages to explain why the book is important, possibly including a story, and then lay out what’s coming.

Complete fact verification with interviewees.

What it is. If you’ve written about people from interviews (as opposed to public sources), send them a copy of what you wrote about them and verify facts and quotes.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. You want them to approve the final content, not stuff that’s still shifting around.

Why you need it now. If you wait, they can come back and derail your work in later stages. You want any necessary changes nailed down as soon as possible.

How to do it. Send only the part that mentions them. Do not ask for approval. Ask them to correct any facts that are in error, and make sure the quotes accurately reflect what they want to say. It’s best to keep track of this in a spreadsheet. You can delegate this to a trusted administrative helper.

Nail down graphics.

What it is. If you have 100 graphics, they’re a big part of the content, and you should have finished them a while ago. But a typical book of this kind has two, or five, or ten. Now is the time to get them in final format.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. You weren’t sure what graphics you were including. You probably had placeholders created with PowerPoint or rough sketches.

Why you need it now. Graphics can cause problems in production. Don’t wait any longer to get them completed.

How to do it. Work with a graphics professional. Describe any production necessities (for example, 300 dots-per-inch resolution or two-color rendering) and work with them to turn the rough sketches into finished graphics that can go into production and copy editing.

Add beginnings and endings bits for chapters.

What it is. If you start each chapter with a quote, this is where you make sure you’ve got it settled. If you end each chapter with a set of things to do, this is where you make that list.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. The chapter content was still in flux.

Why you need it now. It’s part of the content. It needs to go to the copy editor. And it helps you feel certain about the rest of the content.

How to do it. Read the chapter; then research and write the extra bits.

Get the endnotes buttoned up tight.

What it is. Every fact in the book should have a source. If it’s not from an interview, it needs a footnote.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. Footnotes are a persnickety pain in the butt. (But you did keep track of the sources, even if you didn’t actually write the footnotes.)

Why you need it now. You’re not done until the footnotes are done.

How to do it. Write a reference, and use a URL shortener for links. Here’s a detailed description of how to do it well.

Start fishing for endorsements.

What it is. Find people who will blurb your book and get quotes from them.

Why you didn’t do it sooner. Typically, people want the finished book to provide a quote.

Why you need it now. Getting these quotes can take a while. This is the time to start the process, so you can hound those folks until you get what you need.

How to do it. Send a nice note asking. If they agree to consider blurbing, send them the finished (but not fully completed) manuscript by email. Then work with them until you get the quote for your back cover, or until they stop responding or say “no.”

Finish the race in style

First-time writers don’t realize this stage exists. That’s why they’re always so exhausted at the end — they didn’t realize the race wasn’t over.

As a result, they hand things in to copy editors that aren’t actually done. Then they make substantive edits after the copy edit stage. That introduces more errors. It interferes with quality. And it makes the final book look like it was written by an amateur.

Don’t be that guy. Extra effort at the penultimate stage is what makes books hang together stylistically and seem solid and error-free. Do the work at the right moment and you’ll greatly reduce the amount of suffering you’ll have later.

You’ll also have a trouble-free production process that ends on schedule. And then, after you’ve actually finished the race, you can curl up under a warm blanket and sigh contentedly, knowing you did the job right.

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  1. All right, Josh! Since I’m a nonfiction book editor (developmental) these are the kind of posts I love and share with my folks and aspiring folks. Thanks for pointing out issues that authors slough off because they want to be done with their book SO BAD. Then later the regrets emerge and the chest-thumping.
    I love it when you write about writing — I look forward to more awesome blogs like this — and a new book maybe?
    A no-bullshit fan,