the punch list

The manuscript of a book is a hearty, unmanageable thing. Even a slim book clocks in at 40,000 words or more, and I’ve never written one shorter than 90,000 myself. Forget wrapping your head around 90,000 words. You might as well grasp the entirety of your childhood. Or of the present moment. One glimpse, one flash of understanding, is the most you can do: The itchy spot on your scalp. That one sleepover where you stayed up all night. Flash, flash, flash. You’ll never grok an entire manuscript. Not without all the coffee, anyway. And then you spend half your writing session in the bathroom anyway. There’s no winning.

Revising a book is like decorating a living room through its keyhole. “Move the couch five feet to the left. No, wait a second, now it’s blocking the fireplace. Since when has this room had a fireplace?” (This analogy assumes you possess the power of telekinesis. As most analogies should.)

The first editor I worked for was a paper guy. To complement his meticulous, red-pencil line edits, he’d pepper each manuscript with Post-it notes (that I’d have to painstakingly remove before Xeroxing). For a new generation of editors native to Microsoft Word, the comment became our Post-it. “Here,” the comment says. “Fix this passage in this way.” With comments, you can point out the exact spot in need of attention—so convenient. It’s like a home buyer doing a walkthrough with the seller. “Can we do something about this gap between the oven and the kitchen counter?”

Pointing is so much easier than describing. Without comments, collaborators are reduced to crude and unreliable indicators. “On page 7, third paragraph…” That’s assuming the text hasn’t reflown thanks to a change higher up in the manuscript. “In the paragraph beginning with the words…” That’s assuming the wording in that sentence hasn’t changed since then. When you have multiple people offering feedback on the same document in tandem, forget it.

So point-and-fix is convenient, but the problem is that you’re still working through that telekinetic keyhole. This becomes clear as soon as you try to work your way through an editorial pass on a manuscript, or just a chapter. Some comments are straightforward: “Can you complete this sentence fragment?” Others carry global ramifications: “Yet another example of the tendency to exaggerate in the first half of the book.” You’ve revised thirty pages of this manuscript so far and now you’re being retroactively informed that there’s been an issue with exaggeration all along. Which is about the worst thing ever.

A punch list, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a list of usually minor tasks to be completed at the end of a project.” (I went back to the home buyer analogy again, but this time you don’t have to be telekinetic, in case you were struggling with suspension of disbelief.) Creating a manuscript punch list forces you to think through all the changes and how they relate to each other before you make a single change.

Before revising a draft, I review all the meta-material first: Line edits. Comments. Correspondence. New research. I leave site-specific fixes like sentence fragments in place—I tackle them when I get to them. Most changes, however, relate to other changes in ways that are hard to grasp at the sentence and paragraph level. So they all get moved to a punch list, which I build out as an outline in Workflowy.

Once I’ve extracted all of the changes this way, I pare away the duplicative and the repetitive. Suddenly, my task doesn’t seem as overwhelming. Next, I plan out the work. Instead of revising each chapter in order, I design an approach strategy. For example, if I’m going to add a new story or a new piece of research, I will tackle that ahead of any global revisions like reducing exaggeration or changing tense throughout. Inevitably, a new chunk of text will break stuff elsewhere: segues, cross-references. If I’m going to do a top-to-bottom pass anyway, I’ll want to do that after any heavy-duty additions or subtractions. That way, I can smooth out all the lumpiness in one go.

By planning my work with a punch list, I approach the task of writing like a general, not a grunt. It’s a little more work at the start, but it delivers a huge payoff in peace of mind and productivity because I can see the whole room as I rearrange the furniture. I can even organize my effort by energy level, tackling the heaviest lifts when I’m fresh and leaving the mindless drudgery for the afternoon. I’m no good for telekinesis after 10 a.m.

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