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How do you know when a piece is finished?

Often you don’t. Even published works change from one edition to the next. This is a frustrating answer, I know. But determining whether your work is complete is a personal decision. And your readers/critics might not agree with you.

As satisfying as it is to know when your work is done, it can be tempting to revise and revise and revise. You want your work to fulfill its great potential. As if it’s waiting for that one small tweak that will turn it into a masterpiece, and you just have to figure out what that little tweak is. But at a certain point, you need to equip yourself with tools that tell you enough is enough.

You can revise the life out of something so much that the spark of your original inspiration disappears. When you over-revise, you also run the risk of becoming too familiar with the piece, losing sight of the essential details your reader needs to comprehend your intended meaning.

It’s helpful to ask yourself what your main intention is for the piece, then determine whether that intention has been met. Do you simply want to do a character study, or is your goal to explore a larger theme or topic? Would you like your reader to leave the piece with a specific message, or are you open to a variety of interpretations?

As you ask yourself your own questions, you might find that the goal you set out to accomplish is too broad. What is the scope of the piece? Can you do what you want to do in the space of the story? Or does the scope need to come down out of the clouds a bit?

Sometimes your original idea for a story simply comes out flat. It’s important to recognize this, as well. Just because it’s the original idea, doesn’t mean it’s the best idea. Intentions can change, but once you know what you want a piece to accomplish, it can be easier to decide when it’s finished.

Even if you were trying to create a grammatically perfect piece of writing, you would never get there. There’s always another style choice to make, another synonym to consider. And correct grammar isn’t always cut and dry. Do you want a perfectly manicured lawn? The closer you look at any lawn, the more you’ll see that it’s growing imperfectly to whatever extent it’s allowed. No matter how much we try to cut and shape our world, it will always be a somewhat messy thing. As an editor, this is difficult for me to admit: there’s always room for a little bit of mess. And it just might make our stories truer to life.

Originally published with The Loft Literary Center.


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