Completion and Release: How to Know When You're Done Writing

As a full-time writer and editor, I put a lot of words on paper in the course of a day. Over the years (and yes, it did take years), I have learned to trust myself and my instincts when it comes to knowing when a piece is complete, but it wasn't always this way. 

For most of my life, I was a rampant, Type-A, obsessive perfectionist. In my writing life, this was more of a hindrance than a help. I would spend hours going over any piece of writing I created, looking for the tiny flaws that would draw the eye of a critical reader, or the sentence that could be just that little bit more eloquent or evocative. I pictured my readers like a flock of hungry vultures, just waiting to swoop in and tear me apart.

The only way I could stop this, I reasoned, was to dazzle them with my shiny vocabulary and ensnare them in my lofty prose. Forget conversational writing: I was out to build a wall, a stalwart construction of professional prose and razor-sharp metaphor that could shield me from the criticism I so desperately feared.  

As you can imagine, I had a lot of trouble letting go. Nothing I wrote ever felt complete. Eventually, I'd get to the point where I had to concede that a piece was "done enough" – meaning, I had a deadline - but I constantly found myself going back over old documents, analyzing and deconstructing. I took the concept of self-editing to a whole new level. 

As with any creative art, writing is a process of growing, birthing, and releasing. There comes a time for every child to leave the womb; so, too, does every written work eventually need to leave the desk of its creator and make its way into the world. Hang on too long, and all kinds of uncomfortable things start to fester inside the sacred space of your creative energy - things like doubt, cynicism, and fear. 

Of course, there's a tremendous difference between refinement and over-correction, just as there is a difference between baking a cake to perfection and searing it into a sugary husk. It's definitely a good idea to go through a self-review process before sending off any piece of writing, even something as simple as an e-mail. But revisiting a piece over and over, when all errors and inconsistencies have been corrected, just looking for that one possible flaw ... it's counterproductive, and not a good use of a writer's energy. 

If you tend to be overly self-critical in your writing, or simply aren't sure where to draw the line and say "enough, already!" here is a little exercise to help you get over the hump.  

“Why do I feel this work is unfinished?”

This is really the most important question to ask when you're struggling to let go. Before you ask it, try to sit quietly for a few minutes, breathe deeply, and quiet your thoughts. 

Once you feel calm, ask the question, and allow yourself to hear the answer without all the mental chatter. Don’t second-guess it: be honest with yourself. Write down what you learned, and then take a moment to separate yourself from any judgments you have about it.

There are two categories into which your answer might fall.

  • A real problem with the work

  • An inner fear or negative belief

 

Is there a real problem with the work?

Sometimes, you feel instinctively that your writing is unfinished because you really did forget to make some vital point, include an important passage, or follow up on a technical detail (like attributing a quote). If this is the case, your intuition will let you know.

Sometimes, when I'm in the final proofreading stages of a project, I can't get rid of the niggling feeling that I’m missing something. I've resorted to using everything from Tarot cards to word searches (and everything in between) to find those final, stubborn errors - but my intuition never lies. 

If you’re certain that there really is an error in your work, go back through your piece with an objective eye (that means looking for errors only, not criticizing the quality of your writing or getting picky about phrasing). If, after another read-through, you still can’t find an error, it’s time to hit “send.”
 

An inner fear or negative belief

This is probably the biggest reason why writers hang on to their work too long. If you’re suffering from an inner fear or negative belief, your mind might tell you things like, 

  • I'm not a good writer
  • I'm not a “naturally gifted” writer, so I have to work much harder than everyone else
  • I'm afraid of what others will think if I put this out there
  • There are other people out there writing about this same thing, and they’re doing it better than I am
  • I don’t know if what I have to say is worth listening to.
  • … and on, and on, and on.

When you hear these kinds of thoughts, you'll know that you're blocking yourself. Lovingly tell your inner critic that his or her input is appreciated, but you are choosing to have faith in yourself instead. Leave no room for negotiation. 

Then, take a concrete action to release your writing, even if you're not in the right place to press "send." (Meaning, you’re not physically at your desk, or you still need to give it to your proofreader, not that you’re still having doubts!) One way I release my work is to physically print the document. Once I see it in tangible form, I know I'm done with the work of writing and revising, and it's time to move on.

You could also do a burning ceremony (writing your fears on a paper and burning them into ash), or visualize your piece flying away from you on its own wings, and arriving safely at its destination. Choose a practice that works for you, and that feels authentic – and once you’ve done it, don’t look back!

When in doubt, ask for help

Sometimes, a fresh, objective viewpoint can help you to see into the dark places of your writing mind. A developmental editor is a perfect person to ask for assistance. You can also ask a partner, coworker, or friend whose opinion and writing skills you trust. 

Be open to hearing feedback, but don’t let it feed your fears. Every bit of guidance you receive will help you grow as a writer, if you allow it. Know that you are on a path, and that your written creations have a purpose to fulfill in the world – as long as you’re willing to let go and share them!

Ready, set … release! 



Bryna Rene Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing. In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create powerful, memorable, successful works.