Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Knowing When It's Finished

Unlike many writers I know, I am addicted to revising. I've always told students that no writing is perfect... that "a paper is never finished--it's only due." And I find myself revising obsessively when I should be doing other things. 

I just completed a revision of one of my full-length plays a few days ago. I found a cozy coffee shop in Shelton, WA, and spent much of the day there, drinking coffee and revising (it's hard to revise with children underfoot--generating words is possible, but revising has to wait until they are occupied or asleep). And I finished the revision, or so I thought.

I woke up this morning with an awareness that the final scene of the play wasn't finished. It wasn't what I wanted it to be. And though the knowledge made me curse (in my mind, since my daughter was standing over me), I realized my instinct was right. The play isn't ready to send off yet. 

I don't always like that instinct to kick in. I'd love to write something and just know it was ready to send off. But that instinct also saves me from a world of embarrassment. The only time I send a work off to readers is when I know something isn't right, but I can't figure out what it is... and my lovely readers tell me what's not working. 

When do you know something's done? Perhaps I am a bit OCD about it, but I'd love to hear what lets you know something is as good as it gets. How do you know when something is finished?


  1. I don't know that I *know* when things are completed - I've gone back to revise "final" drafts before. However, I usually figure I'm done when the draft passes two tests:

    (a) I read it to my husband and we find only minor tweaks as to significant rewrites.
    (b) I've had at least a handful of trusted readers read it without calling for more than a few tweaks (as opposed to significant rewrites).

    (Note that sometimes a reader has a potential real rewrite suggestion, but it doesn't work for me. Sometimes the tweaks suggested trigger a significant rewrite path for me even if it wasn't called for).

    In the end, it's when I feel like the work says what I want it to say.

  2. I have never written anything on level as you, Shakespeare, but when I no longer have anything more to add to the subject, my writing is complete. Any comments or suggestions about the work I tend to take as a matter of style and perhaps that person's vision of where my paper should go. I don't necessarily agree with the reader, nor will I make the changes. Anyway, that is my opinion about knowing when something, particularly a paper, is complete.

  3. I have gotten to be horrible about not getting things done until they're due - so it's done when I run out of time to futz any more.

    the problem, of course, is that submissions to publishers don't have due dates - so nothing is ever done to send out.

  4. Stephanie, your habit of sharing your stuff with the hubby is exactly what you should be doing. So many writers fear sharing their stuff with anyone else, but having a good, perceptive, creative critic can be the best indicator of when something is done.

    And neenee, you should ALWAYS go with your gut on your own writing. Readers can help give you feedback, but in the end it is you who have to be happy with what you create. I know, for instance, that I would be miserable if I wrote what I considered to be schlock, but it was published and loved by millions of fans. I would still feel like a sell-out. I would still want to write to satisfy myself above all.

    OMG, flit--the due date! Yes, and you are still in school, so you will be victim to this for years to come. It took me a decade to overcome that pattern myself... or perhaps I still haven't. It's hard to get something done when there is no outside deadline... perhaps that is why I make deadlines of my own, whether daily, weekly, or monthly (or seasonally, as with my summer to-do list).