As a writer, I’ve learned that one of the most important things I do is to declare a project “finished.” This resolution sounds easy, but I find it very, very difficult to do.
In particular, it’s hard to say “Finished!” when I’m writing a book, because I love to edit. I tinker, I cut (oh, how I love to cut), I re-organize. I add more facts, more studies, more examples. I think of better choices of verbs. I put a word in, I take it out, I put it back, I take it out again. My work is very, very heavily edited. But at a certain point, I have to be finished.
In fact, I’ve realized there are actually several mini-finishes before the big finish.
First is “beginning, middle, end.” That’s when I finish the rough structure of the book. That’s big.
Next is “no gaps.” That’s when I’ve filled in all the blanks, all the notes to myself to “Fix this.” At this point, the book looks finished (but in fact, it will continue to change dramatically). Also, at this point, the book’s boundaries are set. I don’t add any more major new concepts or sections. This is always a hard step for me. When I should have been at this point when writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I enthusiastically told my agent about some new Churchill fact I’d uncovered. “Gretchen,” she said sternly, “no more research.” This step is crucial, because for people like me, the siren call of research is practically irresistible. But research can be never finished; I have to accept that my books will always be incomplete.
Next is “just about finished.” Now the book is just about in its final form, but I’m still tinkering with language.
Last is the terrifying moment of “finishing” that I experienced two days ago: I sent my editor my edits on the copy-edited version of the manuscript of Happier at Home. This is difficult line to cross, because after this point, unless I find an actual typo or something like that, I can’t edit any more.
It’s funny; I always think it will be a relief to be “finished,” but instead, each time, I get the blues. To cheer myself up, I decided I’d get rid of the pile of rough drafts that I’ve been saving. (I never look at them, but for some reason, I save them.) That felt good.
When I’m struggling to declare something finished, I remind myself of something my father told me: “There’s the perfect legal brief, and then there’s the brief that’s handed in to the court in a timely way—and is therefore effective.”
I remind myself of my Secret of Adulthood (cribbed from Voltaire), Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If I never finish a book, I can never publish it, and I can never start a new book. At some point, I have to let go.
Do you ever have trouble declaring something “finished” so that you can hand it in, close the file, submit it, or whatever you might need to do?
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