Writers often ask how to know whan a piece of writing is finished. If you’re writing to a deadline, it’s comparatively easy: You’re done writing when the deadline has arrived and the editor or teacher won’t give you another extension. But if you don’t have a deadline, how do you know when it’s time to stop tinkering with one piece of writing and move on to the next?
When you host a party, there’s always a little more you can do to make things a little more fabulous. You can make three kinds of cookie instead of two. You can add another song to the party playlist. You can switch the candle in the hallway half-bath from Autumn Nature Walk to Dried Lavender and Oak and back again. As your friends gather on the stoop, you can stick your head out the door and say, “Don’t come in yet! I’m putting up more decorations!” But if you don’t open the door, there isn’t going to be a party.
Writing is an act of hospitality. The writer says to the reader, “Here, I’ve made this spot for you. Come in; here you can be refreshed, informed, entertained, reminded of the truer Story before you continue on your way.” With that perspective in mind, here’s a question you might find clarifying as you try to discern whether or not you’re done with a piece of writing:
Will more tinkering make this piece more of a blessing to my reader?
That question, I find, makes it a little easier for me to open the door and get the party started. I could continue to debate with myself whether a particular adverbial clause works better at the beginning of its sentence or the end, but at some point I’m doing it not because I’m looking to bless my reader more fully, for my own reasons (a self-indulgent interest in grammar? perfectionism? fear of what readers will think of me if my syntax isn’t the best syntax they’ve ever seen? a desire to avoid moving on to the next project?).
I’m not letting you off the hook for excellence, by the way. Through the whole revising process, more tinkering does serve the reader. If moving that adverbial clause makes things clearer for your reader, by all means move it. The time comes, however, when additional tinkering is serves the writer’s neuroses rather than serving the reader. I realize it’s not always easy to know the difference, but even acknowledging that there’s a difference is a step in the right direction.
Sometimes, of course, a piece of writing really is for the writer and not for a reader. In that case, ask the question, Will more tinkering make this piece more of a blessing to me? That’s an ok question too.
Next week I’ll address some questions around giving up on a piece of writing—not finishing it so much as abandoning it. (My answer will involve Marie Kondo.)