How Do You Know When You are Finished?

Dear Reader,

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.”
-Marc Chagall

 

“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.”

-Jean Rhys

 

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”

-Truman Capote

 

“A thing is complete when you can let it be.”

-Gita Bellin

 

“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.”

-Dion Archibald

 

“The painting is always finished before the artist thinks it is.”

-Harley Brown

 

“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!”

-Samuel Goldwyn

 

“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.”

-Karl Nierendorf

 

“Every time an artist finishes a work they care for, evil loses a small piece of its power.”

-Gabriel Shaffer

 

“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.”

-Kate Braverman

 

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.

Sincerely,

Jumbled Writer

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5 Responses to How Do You Know When You are Finished?

  1. What a great question. All the answers you found only say to me there is no answer to the question. Only individual opinions.

    My way of finishing is when I can read the story and only make minor changes or enjoy (as much as the writer can) and just read the story through.

    Although most the authors do seem to agree to the feeling of releasing the story – a feeling of loss.

    • Dear Mary,
      Yes, I think that one must be proud/happy/able to enjoy the work that they produce before they let it go. But then, once you let it go, you give up a project that has meant and taken a lot out of you, which can lead to feeling at a loss for where to go next.
      Sincerely,
      JW

  2. JW, I am so excited I came across your thoughts on the subject. Since becoming an aspiring blogger only this month, I feel like I’m spending hours on end just to write a 600-word article. Lord knows don’t let it be more words. It’s mind-boggling! I just posted an article, which I felt would take 4-5 hours at best, which I still feel is long for one article, took me almost 12 hours. I even ended up completely changing what I had started out with. I was so mentally exhausted, I just stopped and waited to complete it the next day. I have found something, however, that truly works for me. “Don’t publish the article until I have slept on it.” It seems during the night, all the pieces of the puzzle just falls into place. Then in the morning, I revisit and rewrite/edit the article one more time and finally the end has come. But I do have a question. How long does it take you to write an article? Hopefully, one day I can do it in one hour instead of five 🙂

    Gwen

    • Hi Gwen. I’ve been reading your blogs and like the quality of your work, though twelve hours does seem a bit excessive. I think that it does get easier the more you do it. Sometimes the thing that slows down the writing process the most is listening to the voice inside your head that doubts you and tells you that what you want to write is not good enough. Don’t listen to that voice. Not in the first draft, anyway. Just go with what you feel is right for the article. Like you, I believe in always walking away from the article at least once before it is finished. You need that away time to gain perspective on what you have written. I don’t know how long it takes me to complete one article. Something like the one above maybe took two hours because of the researching of quotes involved. That does not include the amount of time that I spent thinking about what I was going to write before I got a chance to go to my computer file and start typing. I try to go about my day in preparation of what I am going to write. Then, when I am able to start writing, my mind has already formed a lot of the sentences. Editing can be a pain, but I am glad to see that you are willing to reshape and restructure your blogs. It shows that you care about what you are saying. I hope this helps. Good luck and remember that it does get easier.
      –JW

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