Sunday, July 11, 2010

How Do You Know When a Story Is Finished?

We often complain that life isn’t as clear as it is in the movies. Unlike real life, stories offer definitive story arcs and concrete beginnings and endings. And, yet, ironically, it can often be difficult for writers to know just where that supposedly definitive ending point is in their stories. This ending point isn’t so much the knowledge of where to end the story itself, as it is knowing when to stop writing the darn thing. When is a story finished for good and all?


  • When we type “The End” on the first draft?
  • When we’ve edited it a few (hundred million) times?
  • When we’ve submitted it for publication?
  • When we’ve seen it in print?
  • When (if we’re extraordinarily lucky) it’s lasted through two or three editions?
  • When we’re dead and buried and the poor story is beyond our possessive clutches?

Because fiction, like much of art, often offers its creator a beguiling sense of fluidity, we have an infinite opportunity for improving it. No story is ever going to be perfect. There’s always room for refinement. Some of us grow frustrated with this ability, declare a story finished as soon as possible, and cast it aside to move on to new projects. Those of us with a streak of perfectionism tend to lean toward the opposite extreme and obsess over projects, sometimes even after they’re in print—and sometimes to the point they will never see print, because we’re not willing to let them go until we’ve tweaked them just a teensy bit more.


In a post on the Writer’s Digest blog MFA Confidential, Kate Monahan, revealed that:


I often struggle with knowing when a story is finished…. Finishing means that the story is as good as it is going to be, or rather—as good as you can make it. It’s hard to let stories go… Sometimes we have to make the choice, decide, and just stop. Sometimes, even though the story isn’t perfect, we have nothing left to say.

Following are a few signs you’ve reached that point of nothing left to say:


  1. You’re changing miniscule details (punctuation, paragraph spaces, etc.) over and over again. If you’re not making important changes in your edits, you’re probably at the end of your editing capabilities. Either seek outside opinions from critique partners, or move on to the next step of submitting for publication.
  2. You’re editing for the sake of editing, as a delaying tactic to avoid sending your work out into the world. Submitting our beloved stories for the approval (and, often, rejection) of others is scary business. But don’t trick yourself into taking the coward’s way out. You’ll never be published if your manuscript never hops into that manila envelope.
  3. You’re rewriting the same story over and over again, to the point that new ideas never get a chance. In truth, we could all probably spend the rest of our lives polishing just one story. And perhaps we would produce a magnum opus in the end. But there comes a time when we have to let stories go. Some stories will never be perfect. At some point, we need to take what we’ve learned and move on to the next piece.
  4. You’re not setting (or observing) any deadlines. Due to its unpredictable nature, art doesn’t always observe the concrete deadlines we might like to impose upon it. If it says it wants more time than you had planned to give it, you’re usually better off listening to it. However, there comes a time when deadlines can be useful in moving a stubborn story to the finished pile. Set a tentative time limit for your story. Tell yourself you’re going to finish editing it by next Christmas and move on to the next step (seeking publication, starting a new story, etc.).

“Too many stories, not enough time” sums up many writers’ outlook. As a result, we can’t afford to spend too much time on any one story. It’s important we learn to recognize when a story is finished with us (and vice versa), so we can continue our journey as authors.
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22 comments:

  1. This is great advice! In my humble opinion, they never end, or that's just the way it seems to me...lol...

    I stopped editing book 2 & book 3 in a series. I spent all my time bringing book 1 to a publishable standard. When I get that all important contract I will have no choice but to work to a deadline, but I'll worry about that when I get to it. In the meantime, I keep writing. :) Or try!...lol...

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  2. One of the signs of a writer who is serious about the long haul is one who keeps writing new stories, even when the previous ones aren't selling.

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  3. This is a great post! One problem is GETTING to the stage of editing over and over again. *shuffles feet*

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  4. You're very true that no piece of writing is perfect, K.M. It can always be improved, but there must be a time when a writer must say stop and move on to something else. You can only polish a piece so much!

    Great and interesting post! Write on!

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  5. Editing does seem to be an endless process. I work through a system of writing and editing the first draft on the computer. I then print out a draft and send it to my gracious beta readers and combine their corrections and suggestions with a copy of my own. I try to make this the wrap up until intersted parties put in their two cents. So far this system has worked for me.

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  6. @Vatche: Perfectionism can be a great and productive trait - but only up to a point.

    @Sally: Designing a reasonable system is very helpful in knowing how long to keep working on a story. I operate by a similar model. Once a story has run through the system, unless I have good reasons for thinking otherwise, I declare a story finished and move on.

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  7. I've found that a deadline helps. Admittedly "real" ones work better for me than the self-imposed variety, but knowing something has to be somewhere by a certain date heats my fingers.

    Good post, Katie.

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  8. Hmmm. This sounds kind of like raising a kid. Pour yourself into them. Then let them go, and let them live.

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  9. @Linda: I dislike "real" deadlines. They make me itchy, which is weird since I almost always meet them with room to spare.

    @Sandra: Beautiful and a bit painful all at the same time, huh?

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  10. I'm so glad I found this blog! The part that rang loudest to me was, "In truth, we could all probably spend the rest of our lives polishing just one story." How true. The revision process, if we let it, could indeed be never ending. Thanks for sharing your perspective here. I will be following and retweeting. ;-)

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  11. I'm glad you found us too! Thanks for sharing the post!

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  12. Good post, Katie. I once read a book by Gilbert Morris on writing, How to Write and Sell a Christian Novel. He talked about the many writers he knew who got the "deer in the headlights" syndrome when their work was actually finished but they feared letting it go. Fear of rejection can make us think the piece just isn't quite finished yet, just one more edit. The truth is, there will always be someone who won't click with your work. We have to make it the best we can and then let go. A lot easier said than done!

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  13. No such thing as perfect work - if there was *everyone* would love it. There's no definite answer for when every story should be finished. But knowing there needs to be a finish is something important for all of us to realize.

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  14. Good post! I don't suffer from "over-finishing" (if anything I lean in the other direction *coughcough*) but this rings very true.

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  15. Well, the same principle applies in the opposite direction. ;)

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  16. Great post K.M.

    I think your comment about keeping up momentum even when your current work isn't doing so well is very true.

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  17. I believe inspiration is largely what we make of it. If we're willing to go after it, even when it's playing hard to get, we'll be more likely to find it anyway.

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  18. Thanks for writing this. Finishing has always been my big problem. Some writers hate looking at the blank page. I don’t; I find it exhilarating and limitless. What I hate is looking at that mess of a first draft, second, twelfth….Sometimes you arrive at a moment where you have to force yourself to stop, so you can move on to the next blank, limitless page. Your suggestions will help me recognize that moment when it comes.

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  19. Finishing can be one of the most difficult parts of writing, but I believe it is one of the most important, not only because it allows us to have something worth presenting to readers, but because it creates a precedent for finishing other projects to follow.

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  20. Great topic! I've always asked myself this question. I had a story in which I thought was ready to submit. Then I had it critiqued. Just when I thought there was nothing I could change, my critique group proved me wrong. I like your #1 point: when you are changing minuscule details.

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  21. A fresh set of eyes is always helpful in assessing a story. A story we think is ready may be a mess to other eyes. A story we think needs more work may look perfect to someone who's more objective.

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