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When is a Writer Done?

This question has plagued me since I typed “The End” on my very first short story. Every writer knows those words hardly mean the end of it. In a sense, it’s the beginning of a continuous process. Of editing, of rewriting, of championing or abandoning the work, of publishing and promoting the piece. To think the creation of the story is such a small part of the entire cycle is both comforting and daunting.

On one hand, inventing a narrative is the best part. Watching an idea become a story and experiencing that rush of excitement when a plot unfolds, or a character succeeds is often why we continue to sit down at the desk. To see how we’re surprised each day. For me, knowing I’m still left with revision and critical feedback relieves some of the pressure of making the story “just right” on the first try.

On the other hand, knowing my precious little tale is merely the tip of a gigantic iceberg of work and struggle and (feasibly) disappointment, dampens my enthusiasm.

At some point, however, a writer must consider when the piece is ready for the next phase of its journey. And how does she know?

I most certainly do not have the answer. But I am the kind of person who works best with metrics and checklists and a tidy list of elements by which I can measure the completeness of a piece.

So, I did some research. I read interviews with authors and talked to fellow writers (some who write fiction, another who writes nonfiction, those who write short stories or opinion pieces). The overwhelming response, unfortunately, was “you just know.”

I bristle at this advice in the same way I cringe when people tell me they “just knew” their romantic partner was “The One.” It’s vague, confusing, and completely subjective.

I did not rely on intangibles when I accepted my husband’s marriage proposal nearly twenty years ago. We were compatible in obvious ways: we had similar core values, like commitment to family and a responsibility to our communities of friends, and the wider world. We enjoyed adventure and travel, we were (and remain) open-minded, open-hearted, honest with each other.

Of course, we also really like being together. Our love language is the same: spending time together. We can be vulnerable with each other without judgment, and I know, in the best and worst of times, he’ll be by my side.

These were the measurements by which I knew I’d marry him. So, I’m seeking the same kind of surety in my writing. Does it exist?

Perhaps it doesn’t. And maybe you’re a writer who just knows when your work is ready. I envy you. Still, I’m offering up some bits of wisdom I gleaned from my research in the hopes that these ideas will help you (and me) feel more certain in navigating that cycle of narrative life.

Step 1: Set It Aside

Once you’ve typed “The End” (or its equivalent), put the piece away. Close the file on your computer or shove the pages in a drawer. Step away from the writing for a few days. If you find yourself noodling on it, wondering what’s working, what needs tweaking, what needs rewriting, you’re not done with it. Conversely, if your mind is wandering towards new projects or ideas or you’re not thinking about the work at all, move on to step two.

Step 2: Seek Feedback

You may have an editor or agent who will read your work. Or perhaps you have a workshop group or a trusted friend who will give critical and specific feedback. Send your work to them and receive their comments with an open mind. Often, they can point out the fractures we can’t ourselves see. They may also have great advice for how to make the story better or more effective. And ask the question: Is this ready?

Step 3: Assess Your Tolerances

Be honest with yourself about the quality of the piece. Is it great? Good enough? Not your best work? If it’s great, head to Step Four. If it’s good enough, consider whether you need additional feedback or if you’re willing to risk the venture into Step Four. If it’s not your best work, think about whether you can revisit it another time, or if you believe in it enough to continue working on it, so it becomes what you wish it to be.

Step 4: Acknowledge The Process

Most writers say that even if their manuscript is accepted by a publisher, there will be more edits, more feedback, more revision in its future. If it isn’t published, you may revisit it, too. It may even become a totally different story!

Step 5: Submit

At some point, you may be ready to submit your manuscript for publication. Do it. After all that hard work, you might as well try!

Other good advice I gleaned from my research is worth noting:

• Do NOT begin with the end in mind. I don’t mean the narrative end; I’m referring to the form of the piece. Too often, we write something that fits a specific set of parameters – a word count or a thematic topic or a specific publishing outlet. Write first, then worry about where a piece “belongs.”

• It can be difficult to read a piece (especially a longer work, like a novel) dozens of times, but before you can stamp it “ready” for distribution to a wider audience, make sure it is technically sound. Check for typographical errors, misspellings and poor grammar. Double check the formatting, especially if there are specific requirements where you submit.

• Set your ego aside. Criticism is (hopefully) a path to a better craft.

Admittedly, some of knowing when your writing is done is intuitive. A writer must rely on her gut and know when the risk of distribution outweighs another round of editing.

What’s your advice and experience with completion? Do you abide by “rules” to know when you’re done or by instinct alone?

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