Sometimes, when a writer has been working on a project for a long time, it is hard to know when their product is “finished.” Now, some may say that a product is finished when it is written out in its entirety, but there are a number of problems in that statement. First of all, writers usually go through more than one draft of something before they consider it complete. As writer Joyce Carol Oates says, “Writing is rewriting.” And that says a lot coming from a writer who is known to write 2-3 books per year (in addition to maintaining a teaching career at Princeton University). As those who have gone through it can testify, editing can sometimes feel like a constant process that never ends. Yet, unless you are determined to work solely on your unfinished masterpiece for the rest of your days, there will come a point when the writing will have to end. Your project will be finished. You will have to move on. Yet how does one know that they are truly finished?
For guidance, let’s look at what other artists have said about finishing projects.
“When I am finishing a picture, I hold some God-made object up to it–a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree, or my hand–as a final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there’s a clash between the two, it’s bad art.”
“She could give herself up to the written word as naturally as a good dancer to music or a fine swimmer to water. The only difficulty was that after finishing the last sentence she was left with a feeling at once hollow and uncomfortably full. Exactly like indigestion.”
“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”
“A thing is complete when you can let it be.”
“I don’t want to sign the work until it looks like it has been lived on, until I have violated the open white space and created something that can become independent of me and fend for itself.”
“The painting is always finished before the artist thinks it is.”
“There is no such thing as the final touch. But touch we must, both to perceive as well as to create. Neither will the creation ever be complete nor its perception absolute.”
-Robert G. Breur
“Don’t improve it into a flop!”
“Don’t ever set yourself a stopping place, because maybe that is just the beginning.”
-John Held, Jr.
“To know when to stop is of the same importance as to know when to begin. To continue merely automatically is as much a sin against the creative spirit as to start work without true inspiration.”
“Every time an artist finishes a work they care for, evil loses a small piece of its power.”
“I knew when the story (Histories of the Undead) was finished when a moment of crisis/drama
appeared and was resolved. A choice is an end. A yes or no. An
action taken. A gesture. A thought. With novels, I say you know it’s over when you are in the hospital. Two of my novels were sold from intensive care.”
What does this all mean? You could take it as a bunch of flippity-flop, since it seems there is no definite answer to this. Like other writers, I have searched and searched online to find an “absolutely correct” answer, something universal that would sum up this question of knowing when to end a project. And it seems that, no matter how many projects I complete, knowing when to end cannot be given justice through a written explanation. It is not a matter of science, but of intuition. When you are finished, you will know. You will not need to question it. If you find yourself asking the question, “Am I done? Is that it?”, then you most likely are not done and that is not all you can do. I find that the revision stage is a bit like running a course over and over again, continually finding new things in the environment until—at a moment that may or may not be expected— your muscles give way and, no matter how much you want to go through the course again, you simply cannot. It is at this point that you must accept this truth, stretch, and go home.
Reader, feel free to share your experiences with finishing projects down below.