When you’re baking, you can smell when a batch of cookies turns golden brown and crispy. When you’re inflating tires, you use a gauge. But when you’re writing, how do you know when you’re done? Sometimes you think you’ve finished your work, but in fact, you’re just exhausted. At other times, you keep fussing and run the danger of overwriting. How can you tell when your novel is golden brown?
The quick and easy answer is experience. Over time writers begin to understand the natural shape of their story and they learn to guard against rushing or fussing. But that’s just the easy answer and doesn’t tell you much. It’s like saying–you’ll know when you get there. Or, when you grow up, you’ll find out.
Let’s probe a little deeper. If you’re writing along and you want to know whether you’re done, ask yourself–what was I trying to say? In other words, when you feel you’ve reached the end, go back to the beginning–your motivation for penning that short story, that essay, that poem, that long book. What sparked this project? Was it a thesis you wanted to argue? A question you hoped to explore? A mood you wanted to convey? A story you wanted to tell? Think about that spark and ask yourself–have I done what I set out to do? Did I support my thesis? Address my question? Express that mood? Did I tell my story? Follow my characters on their journey? If the answer is yes–ask yourself another question–did I do justice to my original intent? Is this argument or character or mood well developed? Do I explore this situation in all its complexity? Have I done everything in my power to say what I wanted to say? If the answer is no, then go back and keep working until the answer is yes.
If you have done everything you could to realize your intent–then do one more thing. Set aside your work for at least a week. Then go back and look at your writing sentence by sentence and throw everything extraneous away.
When you’ve finished all of that, you’re done. You’re ready to submit or show your work. You may hear criticism, and you may experience rejection, but you’ll know that you’ve done what you set out to do. You’ve said what you had to say.