Finish Something: The Writer's Most Important Step

Many thanks to Shawn Smucker and Ed Cyzewski for helping me in my thinking on this. 

This morning, I’m headed out to our barn to paint two antique doors that open from our event space into the bunk room and Philip’s office.  They’re perfect doors – wavy, crinkled – and with a new coat of paint, they will be perfect. Well, not perfect like new from Lowe’s perfect but perfect for this place in this moment.

More than that though, the painting of these two doors marks the final step into completing our barn.  I can hardly wait to call it “done.”

I have that feeling about each book I write. . . I want to be DONE, but then I don’t want to be done either.  (Writing is a series of paradoxical feelings, I think.)  If I give in to the “get done” part, the work is sloppy, less polished, maybe even error-prone.  But if I wait too long to get call the book finished, it falls into a mire of perfectionistic tinkering that means it will never see the light of day.

So here’s how I know something is done:

I don’t know what else to do right now to make it better, more complete, more polished, or more clear.

Arriving at this place is a several step process for me:

  • I listen to myself and draft the best piece I can while recognizing that the first draft is probably going to be, to quote Lamott, shit and also honoring that I am, as Terry Pratchett says, just telling myself the story in that draft.
  • I revise that draft, now that I can see its shape, to make it more full-bodied, as much of itself as I can possibly make it.
  • I send it to writers I trust (and whose work I also happily read in exchange) and get their feedback. (Maybe a post on how I find these readers and the process I use for working with their feedback would be helpful? Let me know?)
  • I incorporate their feedback, as feels fitting for the work.
  • I do at least one more read through and revision with a special eye toward fact-checking.
  • I do a copyedit.
  • I send to a proofreader.
  • I publish.
  • Then I panic.
  • Then I start the next thing.*

Here’s the truth. I could research forever and not have all the information. I could proofread forever and not find every error. I could fact-check until I die and still get something wrong.  Writing is not something that can be made perfect.  Writing is something that can be made beautiful and lovely and meaningful and powerful. But perfect is out of the question. 

Talking with other writers, I hear a lot of this perfectionism holding us back. We’re afraid that people will find a mistake, that people will know something we don’t, that we will not include a part of the story that, later, we’ll wish we had.

We are right about everyone of those things.  Everyone of them will happen.

But here’s what I try to remember – a book is a story captured in one piece of time.  It reflects what we knew and who we were at the moment we wrote it.  Books are kind of like time capsules in that way.

So give yourself this grace, if you will, as you work to finish whatever it is you’re working on.

Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the story you have as the person you are right now.

All the rest – what you don’t or can’t know, what you haven’t yet learned in research, what you didn’t know about the semi-colon – all of that is nowhere near as important as telling your story with truth and energy and passion.  And if you never finish the work and get it out, then what does it matter if it’s perfect anyway, right? 

So finish. Commit to finishing whatever it is that you’re working on right now. Set a deadline, if that helps. But finish. It’s one part of the writing process, maybe the most important one.

What keeps you from finishing a piece of writing?  


*My friend Laraine Herring gave me the advice about writing the next thing when I began sending The Slaves Have Names out into the world. It was some of the best advice I ever got. Now, Laraine has a new book out, On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s BlockI just ordered my copy, so maybe you want to get yours, too?