“Art is never finished, only abandoned”. This is a famous quote, often used when talking about the subject I wish to address today: how to know when a piece of writing is done. It’s a simple enough question. When am I finished? By what yardstick can I measure completeness when it comes to my work? But for such a simple question the answers are very complicated. Drawing from my own experience, here are the four signs that I look for when I’m working to determine whether or not the end is nigh for one of my pieces. These are guideposts that help me, hopefully they can help you too!
- You’re only making minor changes to the piece
In this article I’m assuming you’ve been editing your piece for a while now. If you haven’t done at least three or four full-blown edits of your piece, do that first or you’re not even close to being done. But assuming you’ve done that, and you’re still tweaking and working with the piece, you’re eventually going to reach a point where you’re only making minor changes. Adjusting sentence structure ever so slightly, triple checking grammar, deleting a word and then putting it back – if you’re consistently doing these things and nothing more major, it’s a good sign that your piece is close to done.
- The piece has been beta read
If you’re not ready to have the piece read by someone else in a critical fashion, the piece is nowhere near done yet. Beta readers are invaluable at giving you feedback on the overall merits of your work and can help identify those last few major issues that you might be struggling with. Besides, to me a piece is never really done until someone else has laid eyes on it. Then it becomes a real thing, rather than just something I’m playing with in my spare time.
- You can walk away from the piece
If you can leave the piece for a few days or even a few weeks without feeling compelled to work on it, that’s a good sign that the piece is done. Still compulsively going back to make minor edits? See #1.
As a side note, if you haven’t let the piece rest at all during your time working with it, now would be a great opportunity to do so. I’ve said so before in other articles, but I believe that a piece of writing is like a good bottle of wine – you have to let it alone to breathe before it can be fully appreciated. If you think you’re done but you haven’t stepped away from the piece at all, try it. You might be surprised by what you find when you come back to it.
- You feel good about the piece
Notice that I said “good”; not that you feel “happy” with the piece, or that the piece is “perfect” or that you “know” that the piece is done. Just check in with yourself and ask, “Do I feel good about this piece? As it stands right now, am I comfortable with it?”
I’m a perfectionist, which means I have a hard time letting go of my work. I’ve had to teach myself to accept that no piece of mine is ever going to be ‘perfect’, whatever the hell that means anyway. Put I can strive for what I call in my mind ‘solid’. A solid piece, a piece that I feel stands up to scrutiny and says something, has become my standard of success. When I read over a piece and think to myself, “Yes, this piece is solid”, that’s when I know I’m done.
Each writer has to determine for themselves what they are striving for, but I urge you now, for your own sanity, make it something achievable. Set yourself a standard and meet it. That’s how you know you’re done with a piece.