This is a question writers face every day.
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer. It’s like the quote attributed to a Supreme Court judge about a case dealing with censorship and art, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.”
The answer is very intuitive and it varies—not only from writer to writer—but from manuscript to manuscript by the same author.
Here are some techniques I use to help answer this question.
My weekly critique group supports and encourages me. We have been together for three years now and we’ve reached the point of thick skins and trust that allows us greater freedom to be bluntly honest with one another. I share chapters with other groups I coach or lead, but nothing gets submitted without going through my weekly group at least once.
I encourage all writers to prayerfully seek out critique groups. Not every group is for everyone. Ideally, you want a group with better writers and with writers who are sensitive to your voice and your story. Avoid groups where one person wants everyone to write like he or she does.
Another downside of critique groups is they have time gaps of at least a week or longer and they lose the thread of the story and, if they have fluctuating attendance, input can be spotty. And not everyone “gets” you.
I give them the entire manuscript to read and comment on. The value is they read the entire story in a comparatively short period of time. First readers get the whole story rather than bits and pieces like critique groups. They catch the flow, the character arcs, the plot twists. They can see the whole picture and help identify where there are holes in the plot, unkept promises, and sags that slow the story down.
I believe it was Jerry B. Jenkins who once said, “The time to stop revising is when you are not improving the story, you’re only changing words.”
This is another of those intuitive processes. It calls for self-honesty, for recognizing that I’m only fiddling with the text, not improving it, not making the writing tighter or the story better.
My breakthrough on perfectionism came when editing my first novel. I learned my responsibility is to put my best effort into my writing. Then I roll the care onto God and trust him to bring me to the right critique partners and groups, the right editors and publishers who will help refine my work to the best possible. Not perfect, but the best possible.
What techniques or tools have you developed to know when your manuscript is ready for submission?