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How Do You Know When You’re Done?

6 July 2010

This is the title of a chapter in Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  It’s also a common question writers ask when editing their work. Anne’s simple answer is, “You just do.” She elaborates, describing a time when “you’ve gone over and over something so many times, and you’ve weeded and pruned and rewritten, and the person who reads your work for you has given you great suggestions that you have mostly taken—and then finally something inside you just says it’s time to get on to the next thing.”

I like this answer, but I think sometimes I let this type of thinking pull me away from a piece before it actually is finished. I think, If I’m not feeling it, it must be finished, when what I should be thinking is If I’m not feeling it, I’ll let it rest for a week and then go back and re-read it. There’s bound to be something I’m missing. Of course, if you get stuck in this kind of thought, you’ll never finish anything, either! Anne likens finishing a piece of writing to putting an octopus to bed:

OCTOPUS by pashazade on Flickr

You get a bunch of the octopus’s arms neatly tucked under the covers—that is, you’ve come up with a plot, resolved the conflict between the two main characters, gotten the tome down pat—but two arms are still flailing around. Maybe the dialogue in the first half and the second half don’t match, or there is that one character who still seems one-dimensional. But you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn off the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free.

In this situation, you never finish because you’re always trying to stuff that one rogue leg back under the covers. But how many books have you read in which not one single element, however small, seemed a bit “off?” I’ve read a few poems that I thought were absolutely perfect, but I guarantee you if you asked the poet, they’d say “I’m still not sure about this one line…” Every writer has trouble putting his or her work to rest. No one likes to think they’re sending an unfinished piece out into the world. Luckily, no two readers are alike, and most likely, very few readers (if any) will pick up on that one word you’re obsessing over instead of sending your piece out to publishers/journals/friends/octopi to get published.

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