Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Writing Habits

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How do you know when a piece of fiction is finished? How do you know if you're at the point where additional editing will degrade the story instead of improve it?

Some writers simply feel “done,” that they’ve taken the piece as far as it can go and have achieved a balance of craft and meaning, a depth of characterization, and an inevitability of plot and language. Certainly, this feeling develops with experience and writers begin to sense their own version of “done.” Still, knowing whether you’re done can be elusive. And you can certainly over-revise by worrying and reworking until you’ve written all the energy out of it.

One way to avoid this problem is to pay attention to your own attitudes toward the piece. Some writers maintain that a fiction is never finished, but rather a writer hits a point where he’s finished with it. When you lose the intrigue for a story, it may be time to move on. If you’re not feeling that dramatic pull, how will you write so that your reader does? At this point, you need to decide if the piece is strong. Has your exhaustion with it coincided with the pinnacle of its quality? If not (or you’re not sure), put it aside. You may just need a break from the revision process. Time can reinvigorate the writer’s energy and those stories that you felt you were finished with can come back into play. But if that enthusiasm doesn’t return when you pick it up again and you know you can do better, don’t stress. You may truly be done with it, even though it isn’t up to muster. Remember, you learn something from every writing experience.

If you do stay interested, be careful of falling into the familiarity trap. Fresh lines may begin to sound inevitable because you know them too well, not because they’re predictable. New ideas might seem more pleasing, not because they’re better than the original, but because you’ve become bored with reading the same lines over and over. Gaining objectivity, then, is vital. The best way to do this is to take time away from the story. It’s the oldest trick in the revision book, but it’s essential. Time lets you see the story anew. Work on something else until you have forgotten the patterns of word and the nuances of plot and character. Filling your mind with other characters, new details, and an entirely different circumstance can help. It may take you a few weeks to gain this distance, or several months. Once you do, you will be able to see the quality of the writing and the originality of the ideas for what they are, rather than for what they’ve become in your mind. You may have to go through this process more than once, particularly if you revise and find yourself falling back into that familiarity trap.

You can also show the work to a trusted reader, who may be able to offer a perspective on quality that you can’t fully see. Make sure to choose someone who can be honest and who knows your writing particularly well. Someone with knowledge of your skill will be able to assess your current work in relation to what you’ve done in the past.

Even when you feel finished to the point that you’re ready to start submitting, keep in mind that might not be the end of the revision road. Fiction usually goes through at least one additional revision before publication, sometimes several. Staying in tune with your intentions and looking at the work objectively can help you be open to this process and to publish your best work.