I knew I had a problem when my perfectionist artist of a mother thought I was spending too much time on my novel. I was talking to her on the phone about my progress, and she said “Just finish it already.”
I tried to explain (unconvincingly) that my novel got better with each draft. The first couple drafts were as compelling as watching paint dry. With each revision the story becomes more engrossing and the characters and the world more detailed.
Still, writers have to know when to put it down. I learned this recently as I edited a compilation of short stories from years past. Improving our work can be a never-ending task.
So, how do you know when you are finished?
This is one of the many intuitive aspects of writing. There is no defining mark that tells us when it’s complete. We simply edit until we settle on what feels right.
I find it helpful to think of it in terms of how many drafts I write. Whether I’m writing a blog post or a novel, I tend to have about five drafts, sometimes more. Here is how I think of those drafts.
1st Draft: Take this opportunity to write horribly. The first draft is not prize-winning work, nor is it meant to be. At this stage it’s simply a matter of getting ideas down. Many writers have an impulse to edit as they go along. But editing is not needed at this stage. There is plenty of time for that later.
2nd & 3rd Draft: This is where you edit the most. Cut and paste sentences and whole paragraphs to different parts of the work. Or cut them out entirely. Rearrange ideas and narratives.
Most importantly, let go of your fixed ideas. It’s easy to become attached to our original writing, what we want to say and how we want to say it. But great writing emerges from the revision process.
4th Draft: You are still editing but not as much. Your work becomes more cohesive, and you’re cutting out clunky phrases here and there.
5th Draft on: At this point you should be winding down. You tweak phrases and make minor corrections. Maybe you find better word usage, but you should not make major edits at this stage.
I recommend writing 3-5 drafts of whatever you’re working on. Drafts give you the opportunity to walk away from your work and come back to it with a fresh perspective.
I spoke of using our intuition to know when the work has arrived at where it needs to be. Writing 3-5 drafts will help bring us to that point.
As for my novel, it took setting deadlines to commit me to finish it. With the Writing Without Pants Challenge, when the chapter is finished, then it’s finished.
Except for a few minor things.