How Do You Know When It’s Done?

I think I see a light at the end of this tunnel, but wonder if I’m actually hallucinating.

I can tinker endlessly with a story, spend hours on a single sentence searching out better words. I usually get around this by setting time limits, and deadlines. I will ALWAYS find something wrong, and there will always be something that can be fixed. Storylines are endlessly malleable, changeable, fluid, and I can be indecisive. I am also changing and growing as a writer, and the writer me that started out is a different writer me from today. Every time I go back to the beginning I cringe a little at the awkwardness of it.

I’m not sure if it’s plain old fear that makes me second guess myself, or if it’s the rational part of my brain making an objective assessment of my writing skill.

Some people say that when you can’t stand your novel any more, you’re one draft away from done. Heinlein famously maintained that you should not revise except to editorial order. Obviously I don’t agree with that, but I do understand the importance of not revising a story to death. Elizabeth Gilbert advises that it’s not the writer’s job to worry if a story sucks, because there are people paid to reject you if it does, and that the greater folly is not to send your stories out into the world. From personal experience, I know that writer’s are usually terrible judges of their writing, because they are too close to the material.

So friends, how do you decide when you’re done with a story? I could use a little advice πŸ™‚

18 Comments to “How Do You Know When It’s Done?”

  1. Good question. I’m afraid my answer won’t be much help.

    For me, it’s done when I say it’s done. It’s done when I think it’s a good story, when I’m proud to have written it, when I can’t think of anything I can do that will actually improve the story without simultaneously breaking it. That’s six months of separation notwithstanding, of course.

    But if you’re an endless tinkerer, if you’ll always find something to make it better, I guess this won’t help much…

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Mmm it does actually. I like the idea of looking at changes to see if they’re really improvements, or I’m just pushing words around a page.

      Though, thinking about this a bit more, I’m pretty sure that after this draft I’ll be ready for outside feedback, and then maybe I’ll get a better picture of what’s lacking.

    1. *adds a tomato for good measure*

      Hehe well “Writing” is the answer for a lot of things isn’t it? Though to be honest, I wouldn’t feel comfortable posting an entire novel on a public website. I’d rather have a few trusted readers give me some feedback. For shorter works I may give it a go πŸ™‚

  2. Lol.

    Oh gee, Theresa. I’m pretty much in the same boat as you, so I couldn’t really answer that question. I kind of like the one “if you’re sick of it you’re one draft done” rule, though. I haven’t gotten sick of mine yet, unfortunately (haha), so I’m sure I’ve got a couple of edits ahead of me.

    But perhaps…if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re tinkering with little stylistic things and nothing major like character and plot issues, then that could be an indicator as to the “readiness” of your manuscript as far as sending it out goes. You’ve exhausted the extent of your own judgment by then and need a fresh set of eyes for sure.

    So long as I can still see problems with my manuscript beyond minor issues, then I’ve got work to do. Even so, I really am looking forward to the whole beta reader process. I just don’t want to jump into that before my manuscript is ready, though. I’ll fix what I can now so there’s less to be done later (I hope).

    1. I’m looking forward to the beta reader process too. It will be a relief to leave judgement in other people’s capable hands. In some places they’re just minor issues, but there are still a few rough spots… I guess almost there!

    1. Ahh thank you for the link! I saw that today. It doesn’t help too much with revisions, since I’m not adding any pages anymore, but I like to do the same thing with my drafts. It’s one way to know you’re making measurable progress.

  3. Already a few comments mentioning readers. They’re essentially to knowing it’s done. I do a rough draft, then pause for a day or go right into correcting it into a first draft. I take proper time away from that draft, then look at the whole project with fresh eyes. My revisions create the second draft, which I turn over to a few friends and peers. Whoever is interested in providing feedback. I always aim for several readers because one person can have a dramatic reaction that’s bad for the piece. If several people want a thing changed, it always has to go. If I’m smart, I correct things up to a new draft, which I ask a few new people to look at. Their feedback is always more measured. They help me put the true polish on the piece, catching the last typos and plot errors. Then it’s done.

    1. Good note about going for several readers. That would provide a better gauge of how the story is working. Now, that being said, oh I can’t wait to get to that stage πŸ™‚ Must finish…

  4. As J. Evans Pritchard almost said, “If the manuscript’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the graph minus the area under the manuscript’s curve yields the measure of its greatness.”

    Therefore, you graph these numbers over time and apply a Scrum burndown curve to see when you hit zero and declare bankruptcy. Hmm… no that’s not quite right. I think I skipped a step.

  5. I struggle with this so much. The problem is, as a writer, you’ll always be improving. If you’re always improving then there are always going to be improvements you can make to a story. Therefore the editing process is never-ending. If you keep going back to a story, it will never be finished. The trick is to stop looking at it. Get it to a point where you’re happy with it, at that point in time, and then hide it. Because if you look back a month later – you will find amendments to make.

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