What not to do as your book manuscript nears completion

Photo: Hill Museum via Wikimedia Commons

You’re 90% of the way done with your (non-fiction) book manuscript. All the chapters are written. You’ve got a week or so to polish it, then it goes to the copy editor. And now that it’s complete, you have so many ideas on how to make it better. Since your perspective is gone by now, I’ll help you out. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do at this point.

As you read this, keep in mind what all coders know: The bugs in each release nearly all come from the corrections to bugs in the previous release. The same applies here: since you’ve worked hard on getting this all together, your next steps should take it further towards perfection, not introduce additional problems.

What not to do

Here are the late-draft temptations that are most likely to bite you on the ass later. There is a pattern in these answers: they all seem like a good idea until you realize just how many places in the manuscript they affect, creating way more chances to introduce new problems. Unless you enjoy suffering, do not:

  • Change the title. You’ve woven allusions to the title through the text. A new title requires rethinking everything. That includes the cover, which should be done and dusted by now.
  • Change the subtitle. Same story, only not quite as bad.
  • Come up with new people to interview. Lining that up takes weeks. And where will you fit them into the story?
  • Change the target market. This book isn’t for millennials, it’s for fly-fishermen! It’s so great that you finally figured that out. But shifting the book’s target market will require reopening lots of stuff that’s settled. Promise yourself you’ll write a sequel for the new audience.
  • Rename a key concept. True, your acronym for the 16 steps to whatever isn’t perfect. But if you fix it, will you find all the places you referenced it? Hmm.
  • Beg for permission to tell people’s stories. You were supposed to set the ground rules for those interviews when you did them. You’re screwed if you need to go back and ask permission now.
  • Put off decisions. You left some final decisions up in the air — sections that seemed optional, choices for which stories to use, epilogues to stories in the book. Settle them. This is your last chance.
  • Figure out which author’s name goes first. Really, you should have discussed this a long time ago. If you and your coauthor want to argue about this now, you’ll lose focus — and you might end up hating each other.
  • Doubt yourself. Writers’ remorse is like buyers’ remorse: pointless. You did the best you could. You are six millimeters from the surface of the manuscript; of course you can see the flaws. But it’s an amazing collection of goodness. Trust that you’ll recognize that in a minute, after you press “send.”

These are dangerous things to change in the final draft. They are even worse if you try to do them during copy editing and page layout. Remember, every change you introduce has a chance to introduce an error, only this time you won’t have the copy editor to catch the new problems you created.

Surprising things you can do

I’ve already written about all the typical last-draft tasks on your todo list: making themes and style consistent, wrangling duplicated content, writing the acknowledgments, and verifying facts and footnotes, for example. But there are some content-related temptations you can give in to that will make the manuscript better without introducing too many deadly ripples. For example, you can:

  • Add a foreword by a famous person. You can sneak in a foreword almost at the last moment, because it doesn’t affect the rest of the book content, is short enough to copy edit quickly, and doesn’t include any fancy production elements. So go ahead, pursue Barack Obama for your foreword until the last possible moment.
  • Drop in a sidebar. Did you realize you forgot an important concept that doesn’t fit the story flow? Write a sidebar. Since it stands apart, it won’t affect the rest of the book much.
  • Update statistics. Did the 2018 Guidebook for Ad Spending (or whatever) just come out? Go ahead and sneak in the latest statistics where you previously had older ones. (With luck, they won’t change the story much.)
  • Double-check your stats, facts, quotes, and footnotes. Go check whether that article you quoted really said what you said it said — and that the link still works.
  • Add or improve a graphic. New graphics will make things clearer without roiling the text. So will improvements to graphics you already have. So go ahead and add them, if your graphics helpers have time to create them.
  • Rearrange chapters. This sounds like a bad idea. And it is somewhat disruptive. But if you figure out Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 ought to be switched, it’s usually no big deal to find all the forward and backward references and fix them. This is a lot easier than reorganizing content within a chapter, which is more likely to cause problems.
  • Make promotion notes. You may be bursting with ideas on how to promote the book. They’re a distraction though — if you don’t finish a quality manuscript, you won’t have anything worth promoting. So put your ideas in a file and come back to them when the manuscript has been submitted.

Go ahead, make your book great. Just don’t risk messing it up on the way there.

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