The Definition of Done

A few weeks ago, I wrote about rewarding yourself to help train your brain to get into a productive, creative mode and the value of not moving the goalposts on yourself – but that can be easier said than done when you’re doing something as subjective as writing.  

How many of you (like me) have finished a first draft, but you don’t feel like you’ve finished because you already have a list in your head (or on paper) of all the things you need to tackle in revisions?  How many of you (like me) have finished a round of revisions and been utterly exhausted, but relieved to finally be done with the dang thing – only to wake up in the middle of the night thinking of three things you need to fix… sometimes after the book has gone to your editor?  And if you self-pub, how many of you (like me) have gotten an email from a reader about a typo in your book and you go in to look and maybe it isn’t even a typo after all, but just looking at that scene makes you want to just tweak it a tiny, tiny bit?

Are we ever really done with a book?  And how do you know when to celebrate if it can be hard to figure out when we’re actually finished?

Recently I was talking with one of my aunts who works in project management and she said one of the first things they do with each project is establish the Definition of Done.  You can’t know you got there if you don’t establish concretely what you’re trying to accomplish.  So when is a book really done? 

When we have it in our hot little hands and readers are devouring it?  When we can’t change it anymore (which might be never for indies)?  When the series is complete and we’re no longer having to keep the continuity details straight?  When we aren’t promoting it anymore (which really should be never because we should always be supporting our backlist, even though I’m absolutely terrible about doing that)?  What is your Definition of Done when it comes to a book?

I know some authors who need a deadline in order to be done – they’ll just keep tweaking until the book is taken away from them and thrown into the world.  So maybe if we look at a book from a Project Management standpoint, our DoD could be when the book is taken away from us, i.e. released into the wild. It’s out there, readers are buying it, and we’ve promoted the launch.  Okay, so if we run with that definition for this hypothetical project, then we need to break our goal down into steps for getting from the blank page all the way to book release. Those steps would be different depending on your goals for your book – are you self-publishing?  Going for a traditional contract?  Posting it on Radish as you go? 

For example, for my upcoming Christmas release (Miracle on Mulholland – coming Nov 13th! Woot!), my steps were brainstorming & outlining (check), first draft (check), second draft (check), copy edits (in progress), release prep (which includes cover art, blurb, pre-order links, web-presence – check), formatting & final typo checker early readers (Oct 10th), review team (Oct 30th), promotion (asap), and release.

Then each of those steps are broken down into lists that I get to check off every day to give myself a sense of accomplishment.  I think that’s why I love those lists – and the idea of tackling writing from a project management standpoint – because we get that little reward of ticking off the steps one by one. (And because I’m kind of an organization junkie…) And because project management is all about taking large tasks and making them achievable.  Most of us can’t finish a book in a day, but we can get one step closer.  And if we keep knocking off those steps, we’ll have a shiny new book out in the world (or on submission) before we know it.  

What is your definition of done when it comes to a book?  What tricks do you use to help you get there?  Have you ever approached writing from a project management standpoint?


Lizzie Shane is an award-winning contemporary romance author whose upcoming release Miracle on Mulholland hits shelves November 13th!  For more about Lizzie and her books, please visit

10 responses to “The Definition of Done”

  1. Heather McCollum says:

    Great post!
    I define done when it is released into the world. At that point there is really no going back unless a new edition is published.

    I do celebrate typing THE END of my first draft, but I know it is not nearly done. I then have to make my muddy, shaggy pony into a thoroughbred!

  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    Vivi – software projects at my former place of employment also used the concept of a Definition of Done, which a)was defined the beginning of the project and b) could not be overridden without the sign-off of senior executive staff.

    DoD typically included success critera such as “No open Severity 1 and 2 defects” and a short list of features which HAD to be included in the release for the product to be considered minimially viable.

    As a former STEM worker, I like this analogy a lot. 🙂 I’m going to see what I can do with it.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      I figured there would be some Rubies with much more experience in this area and I was hoping you’d chime in! I’m always looking for another way to frame organization. 🙂

  3. Gwyn says:

    Done. A nice word. It’s rather like roast beef, though. My definition of done–rare–may not coincide with yours, especially if you are in the cook-it-to-shoe-leather crowd. I hate finding mistakes after-the-fact. I really need to find a good editor, but my two tries, thus far, have drained my wallet with little or nothing to show for it. I think I may need an intervention. *sigh*

  4. Great post, Vivi. I find it hard not to keep tinkering with my books. It’s hard to know when they’re done but basically I want each book to be better than my last, whatever it takes to achieve that.

  5. Elisa Beatty says:

    Was just listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates talking the imperfectness of writing…


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