It’s clear to me after two decades of writing and working with writers that none are ever truly “done.” Not even after your work is bound between two book covers on a bookstore shelf—and I’ve asked many published, even NYT bestselling authors this question. Writers don’t ever finish work; they just let go of it.
There’s always another draft, another word, another image to tweak if you could. I remember attending a reading in which the author, Z.Z. Packer marked the book as she read. When a reader asked what she was doing she explained that she continually found things to change that made for a better live reading!
Of course the question then becomes: WHEN to let go of your work? When have you put in enough work, enough revision, gotten enough feedback? When is enough, enough?
I take a page from the Buddhists. I think you are done when you are less attached to the work. When the opinions of others are not as personal—the praise and the criticism. For some people that’s not long after writing; for others, like me, that can take many months, even a year. My work needs to be put away from me until it no longer feels like sinew and bone but rather just hardened carbon vaguely resembling me.
It’s a fine line, though, isn’t it? There are writers who rush work out into the world because digital publishing has made it possible, and there are writers who hone and perfect and refine to a diamond edge but sit on the work out of fear.
So how do you know it’s time to let it go?
- Sit on it. If you tend to rush your work out—sit on it for one week or month longer than usual. Sit on it and completely put it out of mind. Then, return to it and see what’s fresh.
- Read it aloud. There’s nothing more revealing in a “final draft” than reading your work aloud; in the spoken cadence you’ll catch hidden and buried issues that only make themselves known this way.
- Find three kinds of feedback: A beta reader who is also a writer. An editor of some kind skilled in professional criticism, and a beta reader who is NOT a writer, but who IS your target audience. Consolidate the feedback you get. Don’t go to more than three.
- Imagine insults. Imagine receiving negative feedback from whomever/wherever you’re sending the work. How will this feel? Personal? Or just par for the course? Will rejection drive a blade to your self-esteem, or will you be able to shrug it off and move on/learn? The more personal it feels, the more time you may need.
- Work hard. Lastly, don’t buy into the myth of genius that says you either have “it” (talent) or you don’t. The most successful writers are not always the most “inherently talented” but rather the most persistent. Lots of talented writers let their demons squash their art and do not persist at the practice, the craft, or publication. I’ve worked with students and clients over the years who started out writing what read like eighth grade homework assignments only to improve their craft to publishable quality with dedication and persistence.
In short: trust that you can improve your craft and keep at it until your writing is less your bloody beating heart and more an artifact you can share with others without your soul crumbling to pieces with every unkind word. And then, at last, let go.