How Do You Know When You’re Done?

I like to tell my students that writing isn’t ever finished–it’s just due.

As a writer (both creative and academic), I find that’s pretty true. I don’t think I’ve written anything that couldn’t have been a teeny bit better with one more revision–but with most things, I was also writing up against a deadline. My task was simply to do the best I could with the time allotted.

 But the question–is this finished?–plagues me as a creative writer. Since, to this point, I write primarily for my own pleasure, I don’t have hard and fast deadlines. And while yes, deadlines motivate me to write and to get things done, deadlines alone can’t tell me if I’m “done”–if a piece is well and truly polished.

I have a confession to make. Last fall, flush with the success of having finished–and revised!–my first novel in some time, I started querying that novel. Only to realize, as the rejections started trickling in and I started rereading the thing, that I wasn’t actually “finished” with that story. It wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I’d wasted some precious resources by jumping the query gun.

Now, I find myself struggling with the opposite problem–wanting to obsessively revise and hone this novel until it’s polished surface is blinding.

And while I’m generally in favor of revision (I tell my students to do it all the time), at some point I have to count the cost of the revision. Is that minor adjustment–that single word change–really going to dramatically improve the writing?  Is it a good return on the time investment?  It’s also possible to revise to the point that, while the prose itself may be flawless, you’ve revised the life out of the story.

So the question (for me at least) remains: How can you tell when you’re done with a story?

When I was writing my dissertation, one of my faculty advisors gave me some great advice. He said, “This doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be functional.” In other words, it needed to be good enough to pass my committee and (eventually) help me get a job, but it didn’t have to be perfect.

For those of us looking to publish creatively, I think the same rule holds. It doesn’t have to be perfect–it just has to do the job. In this case, the job is to get the attention of an agent.

With that in mind, I have a few ideas of how I can recognize when a piece is finished enough to try querying again:

*Have I revised for content? Is the story core as tight as it can be–for now?
*Have I revised for voice? Is the voice consistent throughout the story?
*Have I had my critique partners read through the entire draft? (This is an important step I wish I’d waited for the first time around!)
*Have I had beta readers look at the draft?
*Have I let the story sit for a while (anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month or more) and then gone through it with fresh eyes?

If I can answer yes to all of these questions, then I think I can be reasonably confident that it’s time–once again–to query.

What about you? How can you tell when your story is “finished” enough to query?

14 thoughts on “How Do You Know When You’re Done?

  1. I have this problem–figuring out when it's done. But the novel I'm querying now is my first to query. My first to edit seriously. It's been a learning process and I keep thinking I'm done, but then I keep changing stuff when I get feedback on something.

    I think on my next one, it'll be easier to know when I'm done though because I will have finished all those editing things I didn't know on my first novel. We'll see.


  2. Suzi–I'm glad I'm not the only one going through this kind of learning curve!

    Tasha–I agree–it's easy to revise indefinitely without actually making progress.

    Christine–I think that's one of the great thing about CPs–they can see things about our manuscripts and our progress that we can't always see because we're so close to it.


  3. Yay, Rosalyn! I asked this question here in January (How Do You Know When It's Finished?), and now you've answered it. Thank you! 🙂 (And no, I wasn't finished…)


  4. Elaine–I told Tasha I'm not really smart, I just have smart friends. The fact that you already posted about this proves it! (And I can't believe I didn't remember that. I'm officially blaming this on pregnancy brain.)


  5. Rosalyn, thanks for the tips. I also queried that first novel too soon. And, as a result, hacked it into pieces through various revise & resubmit requests from agents. The second time around, I was scared half to death to send out my new novel eventhough I'd gone through some of those tests. However, I finally put it out there and decided I wasn't going to sweat it. And, yes, we can wordsmith those manuscripts to pieces trying to make them perfect.

    Btw, new follower–love this blog. 🙂


  6. Oh, how I needed this post. I recently turned in my MS to my agent with revisions as per an editor's suggestions. Now, I still wonder if it is good enough. I worked my butt off to get it just right. I'm still worried, though. I love your checklist items. I said yes to all of the points. Sigh. I hope it's there. Wish me luck!


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