The “Is It Good Enough?” Test: How to Know When Your Book is Ready for the World
My client Dr. Beth Ricanati, whose memoir, Braided: A Journey of a Thousand Challas, I wrote about last week, is making it her mission to help women learn to stop and bake bread. Women tend to be so stressed out these days that stopping to do anything — breath, take a walk, take a minute to think — is becoming more and more of a luxury. One of my favorite moments in Beth’s book is when she addresses the question that new bread bakers always ask: how will I know when the bread is ready to take out of the oven?
The reason I love this story so much is that it captures the exact same concerns that book writers have about knowing when their manuscripts are ready to go out into the world.
New bakers, like new writers, want answers. “Tell me exactly what temperature for exactly how long I should bake the bread so that it’s perfect” has the same root as “Tell me exactly what I need to do to ensure that the book I write is beloved by agents and editors and readers.”
The root of those questions is lack of confidence in your own senses, your own knowing, and your own truth.
What Beth tells new bakers is this: you will just know.
You will know by the way the house suddenly smells like freshly baked bread — not almost-baked bread but bread at its prime moment of done-ness. And the more you bake, the more you will be able to pinpoint this moment of transformation when the dough ceases to be the sum of its part and becomes, instead, bread.
The same is true of your book. You will just know. And the more you write, the more you will come to pinpoint when all the words and sentence and paragraphs transform into the book you wanted to write.
I was recently speaking with KJ Dell’Antonia, a seasoned author and long-time writer and editor for the New York Times’ Motherlode column, about her work-in-progress (about which I shall say nothing just now…) KJ had been working and working and working on the book, revising and thinking and tweaking and changing, and then there came a moment when she just knew it was time to be done and send it out to her agent.
How did she know it was ready?
She said, “It’s good enough.”
As a pro, she just knows — and she knows that there is a whole process a finished manuscript goes through before it becomes a book. In a traditional publishing model, agents and editors and copyeditors and proofreaders will still work on it and in a self-publishing model, you will have copyeditors and proofreaders.
The goal is to get it to the “good enough” point — and then let it go.
The goal is not perfection — because there can be no such thing in bread or in books. They are both living, breathing works of art.
For first-time writers, knowing where the “good enough” point is can be difficult. I came up with a simple three-part “Is it Good Enough?” test that writers can use to determine if their manuscript is ready for the world. It goes like this:
The “Is it Good Enough?” Test
1. Do you love what you have written? It’s hard to ask anyone else to love it if you yourself don’t love it first. You may get to a place where you are tired of your manuscript, or itching to start the next project, or just done after years of putting in time and effort — but that’s different from the love. You need to love what you have written.
2. Can you identify the kinds of readers who might love what you have written, and do you know why they might love it? Your book is not going to appeal to everyone, and that’s fine. But knowing who your target audience is and what they might be coming to your book for — education or entertainment or solace or solidarity — is critical to its success in a crowded marketplace. You don’t have to write to the market, but I believe that you do have to write to some specific kind of person or group of people, and you have to know what they need. If you can give it to them, your book will be well received. Being able to identify these readers and articulate how you will serve them is a good indication that your manuscript is good enough.
3. Have you had trusted readers give you honest feedback? Like an electrical current, writers need readers to close the loop. In order to make sure the connection is working, you need to seek out honest critical feedback from trusted allies, and then you need to measure that feedback against your own vision and instincts. It’s a powerful step in the writing process — to test the product and see how it works in the field. This is the step where a professional like a book coach can add huge value, but you can also do this with beta readers, writer friends, and trusted laypeople. Just make sure you are open to hearing what they are saying and ask for truly honest feedback. Once you hear that feedback and address it, your manuscript is probably good enough.