When are you finished?

Writers are really two people.

A writer is, first, a creator. You take ideas, construct plots and characters, and put together a string of words upon words to tell a story. Slowly, with great effort, a story comes into being.

Next, a writer must become an editor. Take that story, and refine it. Cut the parts that don’t work. Rewrite the parts that need improvement.

Then you hand it back to the creator, so you can create some more. Then you edit it some more. With every cycle, the work improves further.

But when are you finished?

In some ways, it’s easier to have a deadline. If you must have something for publication by a certain date, that’s the cut-off point. Whatever you’ve got when you hit that date, it’s finished – good or bad. If you’re writing for yourself, there’s no limit to the number of drafts and redrafts you can do. No longer happy with it? Perhaps the main character should be a giant talking rabbit… rewrite number seventeen kicks off, and your novel is under review for another six months.

Are you really rewriting to make it better? Or is this a stalling tactic?

There comes a point when you aren’t improving the work any more. The constant rewrites are doing nothing – or possibly making it worse, killing off whatever initial ideas made it worthwhile. You may even find yourself starting to hate your own work, with the writing becoming a drudge.

There’s a nagging doubt at the back of every writer’s mind that says “this is not good enough”. It’s a useful voice sometimes. It’s what strives to keep us improving, trying new things, making our work better. But eventually we have to stop listening to it. Eventually, we need to declare the work done, so we can move on.

But there’s always that fear – is it really any good? Will people like it? What if it doesn’t sell? As soon as we publish that novel, we’re done. No more changes. It doesn’t matter what we think of, what brilliant new ideas come to us. It’s too late. And it’s easy to slip into endless rewrites, determined to improve it still further, never publishing it because we’re afraid that it isn’t good enough, that there’s more to do.

Eventually, you have to let it go. Sure, there’s the risk that you’ll immediately think of six ways to improve it. But if you don’t let go, you will grow to resent it. You’ll see rewrites as a chore rather than a calling. You’ll end up making bad decisions, making it worse rather than better.

When do you stop rewriting? When you start to hate it. Not in the “yuck, rewriting sucks” sense, but in the “I don’t want to do this any more” sense. When other projects seem more appealing. When you find it hard to focus. When you find yourself avoiding it. If you sit down to rewrite things and find yourself browsing Facebook posts from last year instead, you’ve definitely hit this point.

When you find yourself actively avoiding your novel, make this your last redraft. Abandon any major changes. Give it a last read-through (when was the last time you actually just read your novel? As a reader, not a critic?), make any obvious corrections, and declare it done. Better to publish now than let the thing rot in your desk drawer (or Documents folder on the computer). Either way, you aren’t going to rewrite it again and you know it.

What happens next? Possibly nothing. Perhaps your novel isn’t all that great. So be it – move on, write a better one. Perhaps it will sell, and you’ll wonder why you took so long. If you never finish it, you’ll never know.

Be bold. Publish and be damned.

Whatever happens, you can start a new story. And the next one will be perfect.

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