On finishing(s)

While searching for snarky sports commentary at bedtime two nights ago, I stumbled across an interesting Twitter thread on finishing a manuscript (because I was tagged in it).

I am a big believer in the old Walter Benjamin line about how manuscripts aren’t finished, they are abandoned. But the key here is the verb abandon.

In finishing, you abandon the manuscript over and over: to get it under review, to get it back under review after revision; to deal with copyedits; to deal with page proofs. And that’s in the best of possible circumstances. There are even more little abandonments along the way. Today I “finished” a chapter I have been fighting with (on fatigue, draw your own conclusions) since mid March. It was also the least developed chapter of the first version of the ms that went to the press last year. Yeah, I know a lot is going on and most people aren’t writing. I am not saying that you should be writing. But I am absolutely driven to write. At least this book because I know why I am writing it and for whom (one of the people for whom I am writing is me).

Even so I ran away from this chapter a couple times to work on other chapters because I just couldn’t figure out how I wanted to make the argument work and how it should be presented. But at the end of last week I was finally ready to do what needed to be done. Now it’s on Carrie’s desk (aka in-house peer review) to see if I can cut even more before showing it to people. She will find the parts that don’t make sense, or that should be brought out and also tell me whether I should cut a 15-page section on medical models of fatigue down to 2-3.* Then I’ll edit again next week for half a day and send it to some people (and others will get it as part of the revised manuscript when I send in the whole thing).

All this is to say finishing is not a definite act. It is many many small acts.

I think it’s Robert Boice in Professors as Writers who says to “write before you are ready,” but regardless of who said it (if he said it, he wasn’t first), the same is true about finishing. When I send the MS back to Duke at the end of the month (fingers crossed), I will still have lots of prose editing to fix to make it more beautiful, and that’s assuming the readers don’t ask for more changes (they could). I will have all my image permissions (because I planned ahead) but there will be design issues to work out. It doesn’t matter. It’ll be finished when it goes back, and when any additional changes requested reviewers go back, when the copyedits go back, when the proofs go back, when it appaears in the catalogue, and only much later, when I hold an object in my hands.

*I am really trying to have shorter chapters this time. I’m at 55 pages/17,000 words. Not bad for, not great in terms of my targets.