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From the Front Lines: How can you tell when a work is done?

These four factors can help you decide when it's time to stick a fork in your writing.


My family has had, until very recently, this very odd vision of what it means to be a writer. It involves bonbons, pajamas all day, siestas. Probably a fainting couch.

Now, listen. I would love a fainting couch, but that is not in the cards. Writing is one of the most brain-intensive things I can think of doing with my day. The tasks at hand are varied: We might be querying new work; trying to sketch out a new essay; working on a different form, or revising. But regardless of what it is a writer is doing, it all still takes deep mental work. Even reading is rarely reading “just for pleasure” if you’re a writer. Some part of your head is always learning. Getting rejected time and again; continuously adding to your skills; trying out new forms; getting rejected time and again – oh, wait, did I just say that? – it all takes hard work.

Social psychologist Angela Duckworth might say that what I’m describing is grit. It’s the quality that keeps people going when times are tough; an extra reserve that some people have. I think I’d agree with her. Duckworth’s research shows that grit is one of the best predictors of success, and as I was reading, it occurred to me that it’s also a good way to answer a question I often get asked by new writers: How do you know when a work is done?

We could answer it flippantly, thusly: When you know, you know. We could answer it tentatively: You just have to trust yourself. We could answer it by putting it to the world at large, in, say, a query: If it gets rejected by a hundred editors, it’s not done. But I think we can draw more solid answers from the four tenets of grit that Duckworth lays out in her book.

First up is interest. You might have heard this described as “passion,” but in writerly terms, I prefer to think of this as what you’re willing to work toward. There are three stages to this interest: first is discovery, which in writer’s terms is the idea that you just had to write about. Second up is the development of the idea. Laying out the plot; noodling over whether the story or essay will go this way or that way. The last stage of interest is deepening; this is where the writing takes place, where you’re trying to lay out all the thoughts you have about this character or that subject matter, in a way that feels good to you.

Second is practice. This stage involves skill development, feedback, and, I’d argue, revision.

Next is purpose – “the intention,” Duckworth writes, “to contribute for the well-being of others.” For the writer, this might include picturing who your reader is, and how they might be affected by reading your work.

And finally, Duckworth notes that the last component of grit is hope. In her words, you must be an optimist; you must search out the temporary and specific causes of your suffering, to know what they are and to know how to address this suffering. In writer’s terms, this suffering might look like consistent querying without success or feedback that makes you feel like crawling under a rock.


Now let’s apply these four components of grit to the “doneness” of written work.

Interest is maybe the lowest-hanging fruit of the bunch: Are you tired of thinking about the topic you’ve written about? Kind of done with the characters in the work? Have you told the story you feel you need to tell and fleshed out those characters to your satisfaction? Yes? Then check it off the list.

Practice. Do you feel like you’ve put all of your skills into this piece? Is there a form you haven’t tried yet that might suit this particular piece better than what you have now? Have you sought out feedback for this piece? These are all markers of diligent practice.

Purpose. A great many might start writing a story, essay, or poem for themselves. This isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s very common, Duckworth writes, to start out being really interested in an idea for the sake of one’s own interest in it. Later, a writer might eventually come around to see that it might do someone else good to hear the ideas or the story the writer is positing. And I think this is where the benchmark of purpose might be of most use for gauging doneness of a piece – can you see clearly how and who your work might benefit? If you can picture your audience, then your work might be another step closer to done.

Hope is a tricky one, especially because Duckworth sums it up as “fall down seven times, get up eight.” This could mean that you keep on sending your work out on submission until you find someone who likes it and wants to publish it, thereby making it “done.” But I prefer to think of this last marker of hope in terms of learned optimism and learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is when you encounter trouble you can’t see your way out of so many times that you stop looking for solutions. If you encounter trouble seven times and you can’t get up seven times, well, you’re not going to know how to get up an eighth time, are you?


But learned optimism is when you’ve worked your way out of a puzzle or a conundrum enough times that you train your brain to believe that there is always a solution.

So, what does that mean for doneness? Well, if you can’t think of another way to tell the story; if you can’t think of another dimension of it you want to explore; if you’ve exhausted all the solutions to all the problems you’ve presented in the work, then – maybe you’re done.

Writing and publishing aren’t science. You can’t stick a meat thermometer in a piece of work and go, “Yep. Totally ready for consumption.” But you can gauge it by some measure: Interest, practice, purpose, and hope are good places to start.



  Originally Published