When is a piece finished? Never. One advantage of writing over speech is that it can be revised forever, even after it’s published. The harder question is when do you stop Revising? When and how do you let your baby go?
My friend Greta Tilley could never stop changing and changing and changing. Her editor at the Greensboro Daily News & Record finally devised a way to get her to turn in her feature stories. He would lean over her shoulder in the newsroom as she typed away at 3 a.m. and say, “Greta, hit the Save key.” Then he would unplug her terminal.
You’re close to finished when you’ve done the techniques I described in my post on “Submitting perfect copy: Use the spelling and grammar and usage checkers, (trusting none of them), read aloud, check names and numbers and facts, etc.
Adair Lara says you’re finished “when you catch yourself changing stuff and then changing it back.” I would modify that to say “when you keep changing stuff and then changing it back.” You can use the clipboard to hold alternative versions of short passages, and choose by reading aloud.
Two questions can stretch out revision endlessly: “How can I make this perfect?” and “Can I make this better?” No writing is ever perfect, just as no person (especially a writer) is even close to perfect. Striving for absolute perfection leads to slowness at best, and never publishing at worst.
Anything can be made better, but the improvement may not be worth the individual effort. You’re more likely to make useful changes in response to the questions and suggestions of your helpful editor. But editors can’t edit what you hang on to.
One good test has to do with voice. Read the whole piece aloud and mark anything that doesn’t sound like you. Change those passages until you hear your own voice flowing.
Here’s a test using the magic questions, “What works, and what needs work?” The key word is “needs,” and the target is the reader. The real question is “What do I need to do to this so readers will understand it and read it to the end?” And you want to add: “and make them want to read me a whole lot more?” Watch out. You’re about to start thinking about yourself, and your Internal Critic is about to sneer, “What if this book isn’t as successful as the first one?” And your finger will freeze above the Send key.
Sometimes, you just surrender it. After 24 years, E. V. K. Dobbie finished a six-volume edition, saying, “No doubt this volume would be a better book if I had spent a year or two more on it, but as [his collaborator] used to tell me, one must always leave something for the reviewers to say.”
[How do you stop yourself?]