How do you know when it’s done? (Or how I stopped hating and learned to love my imperfections)
It’s the perennial question all writers face: You’ve written a piece, and good as it is, is it done? Have you done all you can to make it perfect? Before we get there, check the entry criteria. I call them table stakes. Consider these five points first.
- Central point: If it takes more than one sentence (25 words) to describe what the story or poem is about, you’re not done.
- Emotional depth: Any place you can go deeper? Balance inner thoughts, action and dialogue.
- All five senses: Crisp descriptions and new imagery.
- Point of view and tense: If you changed the point of view, for example, from first person to third, how does the story change? If you changed from past tense to present, what happens?
- Strong characters and vivid setting: Are they visible? Can you make them clearer?
“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius
The simple answer is: it’s never done done. You’ve heard that James Joyce was still making edits to Ulysses decades after it had been published. How Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms to ensure he’d picked the correct one? Don’t get me started on Emily Dickinson…. You can drive yourself crazy. Here are a few hints to help you figure out if you’re done. Or not.
1. Put everything in
Be constantly on the lookout for subconscious gifts — those persistent whispers — it’s why I write. To get outside myself, to find that something extra I didn’t know I had. I call it touching divinity.
More often than not, those persistent whispers lead me where I need to go.
Given free reign, I tend to get off track. I go tangential. No problem. At least I didn’t ignore the whisper; I took heed. Maybe it was a wrong number.
If you don’t write it you’ll never know and not knowing can haunt you. Put everything in.
2. Take everything out
It sounds counterintuitive. Hang with me. I can explain.
“Write a sentence as clean as a bone.” — James Baldwin
Let’s take it further: write a paragraph as clean as a bone. Write a scene as clean as a bone. Write a story, a chapter, a whole book as clean as a bone. Challenge yourself. When in doubt, take it out.
I create outtake files. Keep them. They may become useful for something else.
Here is the “kill your darlings” thing. Ask yourself: am I keeping it because I like it, or am I keeping it because it’s necessary? Necessary means it advances the story, deepens a character, or ties back to the central theme. If it does none of these, open up your outtakes file, and take it out.
Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect it isn’t. My first drafts are full of filler words, common phrases, and what I call fluff. Crutch words. If only there was a quick way to clean it up. There is! That’s where my repeat offenders list comes in. I have 40 or so fillers, fluff stuff, and crutches for which I check.
But, you counter, what if filler words are there for a purpose; what if they help to build the voice? Voice doesn’t need filler words, voice don’t need fluff. Tighten.
4. Put it in a drawer
Distance. Sometimes we need distance. You’ve heard a peer say, “It seemed so good when I wrote it; then I read it the next day and it was complete hogwash. Balderdash. Drivel. How can that be?”
You’re too close. It’s natural. What’s needed here is perspective.
Put it in a drawer. Literally, figuratively, whatever works for you (see hint 1). Pull it out in a week. Mileage may vary but somewhere between a week and a month is about the right amount of psychic distance to be able to get perspective.
5. Read it out loud
This one is new for me. I have friends who swear by this step for all writing, from fiction to essay, to blog post. Read it outloud and where you hear yourself stumble, your voice cracks, or a word just gets stuck in your throat, see if you can fix it.
Some would even say record yourself reading it and listen to it. I have to admit I have not gone this far yet, but I would love to. Your smartphone can record your voice. Your computer probably can. Try it.
Bottom line: Good feedback makes you want to write more. If feedback makes you feel like not writing, it gots to go. Out out. No explanation needed. (Unless it is your editor, you’re under contract and you just want don’t want to — that’s a different problem.)
Constructive, deep, heart-felt, thoughtful feedback is gold to writers. Instead of saying, “this is not right,” it says, “have you thought about…?”
Great feedback can sting. You’ll know great feedback when you see it; deep down you know it’s true.
Great beta readers are earned, not found. When a reader agrees to read for you, you enter into a sacred contract. They took the time to read it; you owe them the courtesy of acknowledging each point.
Show respect for their time and effort. Express gratitude. You will have a stronger beta reader next time.
7. Tighten again
In the process of incorporating feedback, in rewriting, you have gone back to some of your habits. Run through the tighten sequence again. Doesn’t have to be time consuming — after all you already did it once. The heavy lifting got done the first time.
There they are. Seven hints to think about when you’re not sure that you’re done. Do all of them every time? No. Use discretion. If I had the time I would do each of these steps. Would I then be done? Um. Maybe? But I would rest assured — all the tools and methods I know of have been exhausted.
After all this, will I read a piece months later and see something I would have liked to change? Happens all the time.
View your writing as a progression. Your imperfections reflect the way you were when you finished that piece. You will do better next time.
Rick Pryll is the author of The Chimera of Prague (Foolishness Press, 2017), which won the Romance category at the 2018 New York Book Festival, a collection of short stories, Wallow (Foolishness Press, 1999), a poetry chapbook, Displaced (Foolishness Press, 1998) and a hyperfiction short story, “Lies,” that has been translated into Chinese and Spanish. A graduate of MIT, he wrote a novella to satisfy the thesis requirement for his degree in Mechanical Engineering. Rick and his wife, ArtPop Charlotte 2018 artist Holly Spruck, live in Charlotte. They have two children and two cats and a dog.
Join Rick for on Tuesday, January 29, from 6 to 8 pm to hear his astute advice for writers considering the self-publishing route, “Do Not Get Ripped Off! Tips for Self-Publishing.” Details and registration here.