There is a stage at the end of a major project, like sending off a book or a thesis, where you are almost, nearly, very nearly totally complete… except there keeps being one or two more things you need to do. And that stage can go on for a couple of weeks, or even more.
It can be hard to tell if that stage is you procrastinating or if you really do have a bit more to do.
I have just been there (I am writing the first draft of this literally a couple of hours after sending off a book project to beta readers), so I thought I’d write about my own experience. Apart from anything else, you are not alone if you are having a similar experience.
Two weeks before I wrote this post, my co-author announced that we were nearly finished, and we agreed we probably needed just another couple of days and we’d be finished with the book. Actually it went off the morning I wrote it up, and there had been a lot more work that needed doing.
Neither of us tend towards procrastination, though like everyone we occasionally avoid work we don’t want to do, or de-prioritise stuff we think is boring. So I didn’t think we were necessarily dragging our heels, but as our internal deadline passed, and then went further past, and and then further past, I wondered if we had been over-confident, or if we were avoiding something.
The answer is probably a bit of both. But it was also true that it was only yesterday that we researched and wrote the first page and the last paragraph. I always say you can only write the introduction at the end… and it is truer than I expect, every single time.
And until the day before yesterday, I really didn’t know what should be on that first page. When I worked out what we were missing, I thought we could make it work with just three or four sentences, maybe a couple of paragraphs. I also thought I could easily go back to my research and condense a few facts, add in some colour and be done. Instead, I had to line up four conflicting (but credible) accounts of chaotic movement in the final days of WWII and try to decide what I thought was likely to be the story. So that was something I underestimated.
On the other hand, I also didn’t know how to end the book until the day before yesterday, and when I worked out what was missing, I thought we could make it work with just three or four sentences. And for the conclusion, I was absolutely right. So, you win some, you lose some.
The end is always full of tiny little irritating but essential corrections. For example, my co-author likes to format Biblical citations chapter.verse, but the style guide requires chapter:verse. I spent a lot of time today changing full stops into colons. The style guide has different views about numbers written out vs. numerals from my co-author too, and he has a good point on consistency grounds as the texts we quote from tend to spell out the numbers even up to ‘ninety-nine’. I didn’t get the dashes sorted, those will have to be done in the next round.
You will always find some references that have lost their citations, or a sentence or two that is, inexplicably, in a different font. There will be comments hanging around from draft 2 that you resolved ages ago. There will be so many tracked changes that your software will hang and crash. It’s fine.
My cat also decided that she was also really happy about the end of the book, and kept walking across my keyboard and sitting on my notes. Trying to find errant semicolons while looking over a cat is a challenge!
In addition, we are both busy with other jobs–a new book that I’m getting started with the Thesis Boot Camp gang, trying to promote Academic Writing Trouble. Our day jobs also take up time. My co-author was off to a conference the next day, and I’d just had another report deadline, so there have been other pressures.
I guess I just want to flag that even experienced authors find it hard to know when they are done. They know when they are nowhere near finished. They know when they are absolutely past finished. But that perfect moment of just perfectly done enough to send it off finished… that one is hard for everyone.
As long as each time you go back and do more work on the text you can clearly see that you are making it better, then you are probably not totally done yet.
If you are going back and making it worse, then you are well past finished and you should send it off before you ruin it.
If you are nearly done yourself, congratulations! It’s a huge achievement. Just a little bit longer and then you will be really done. Still–don’t forget to celebrate all your milestones along the way. We absolutely went out to celebrate the first full draft, being offered a contract, and many other smaller markers that showed we were making progress.
In that last two weeks, we gave ourselves ‘yay! we are nearly done!’ celebrations nearly every day–and it helped keep our morale up as we went through yet another final_final_final_no_really_final.docx version.
Soon we will have a ‘yay! we are nearly done… except for the rounds of feedback from beta readers, our editor, our copy editor, and our layout person!’ celebration, not to mention the ‘except for the promoting’ part of writing a book. No book is ever actually really done until long after it has been published.