A couple of times this week, students asked me, “How do I know when I’m finished writing a story?” Good question. That’s one I’ve asked myself many times. Unfortunately, there’s no one right answer to this inquiry. Sorry.
I once had a professor, Dr. Lezlie Laws, who said, “You never really finish a piece. You merely abandon it.” I understood what she meant. I can tinker with a story forever and never declare it finished. The other day I picked up something I wrote twenty years ago and immediately started re-editing it.
On the other hand, I’ve worked with people who believed their stories were perfect just as they wrote them the first time through with no editing. Well, that may be true for someone, somewhere, but I haven’t read a rough draft yet that couldn’t be improved by a thorough revision. The most accomplished authors will tell you that the majority of their effort comes in revision not in writing the first draft.
William Zinsser, noted journalist, author and writing professor, said, “Rewriting is the essence of writing well, where the game is won or lost.” I agree. So, if we know we need to revise, and we embrace that challenge, then how do we determine when our work is done? How do we find the balance between making a story the best it can be without stepping into the world of perfection where no story is ever good enough?
I think we first have to accept that our story will never be perfect and know that withholding it from those we love until we get it just the way we want is depriving both them and us from a meaningful connection.
Having a deadline is also a good way to avoid the perfection trap. Either give yourself a due date or submit to an external deadline created by a class assignment, writing contest or editor’s requirement. Commit yourself to making your story the best you can possibly write and then let go when the time comes.
You may also want to ask a trusted friend or fellow writer whose opinion you value if they believe your story is ready for the light of day. Sometimes we are too close to our work to be objective. Find a reader who will tell you the truth in a supportive and encouraging manner and consider the feedback he/she offers.
As I said, there is no one, definitive answer to this question. Know that the story you write three years from now will likely be better than the one you write today, but that does not mean that you should keep all of your writing in a box until that time. We improve our skills, allow people toknow us and find we are more alike than not by sharing our stories with others. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity.
So, tell me, how do you know when your story is finished and ready for the world?