How to Finish Things

Does anyone else think it’s odd that in Michelangelo’s version, David is the giant?

After chipping away at a block of marble for months, when exactly, did Michelangelo know that David was finished? We might see perfection, but did Michelangelo? Or, could he still see little rough spots, spurs of stone? Did he feel like he could have kept going? At some point Michelangelo had to decide to put his hammer and chisel down.

The more I write, the more I realize that completion isn’t so much point as a spectrum. And, it turns out, “finished” means different things to different people. Some writers are satisfied as soon as the tale is told, and nowadays there are plenty of avenues to put your work out there before the paint is dry. While this isn’t the path I walk, neither do I want to be trapped in a cycle of perpetually revising and polishing a story in a futile pursuit of ultimate perfection. Surely, if Michelangelo had pursued David to perfection the boy would have vanished into a cloud of marble dust.
So, how do you decide when something is finished?
Set some standards.
These are personal standards and can be hard to define, but it’s worth taking the time to articulate them. Spend a few journal pages thinking about what you want to achieve in your work. I want to write something saleable, and I want to write to the very best of my ability. More specifically, I want to create stories with great plots and three-dimensional characters. I want to tap into deep emotion. I want the prose to achieve a certain level of diction and style. These standards help me assess my stories through a writing process that can be varied. For example, some pieces may need only a couple tweaks while others aren’t working at all and will go through the revision wringer 10 or 12 times.
Hone the ability to honestly assess your work.
The ability to dispassionately assess your own writing is probably the most useful skill you can develop as an artist. The two best tools to do this are time; i.e. putting a piece away for a few days, and others. The important thing to remember is that anybody can show their work to a critique group or an alpha reader, but to benefit from this exercise, you have to be willing to see your work through their eyes. This is not the place to defend your writing. If you can understand how some else sees it, you will be in a position to make the most of their feedback.
You have to be able to let it go.
This is hard because you will always see flaws, little rough spots that could be reshaped. Once I’ve made a story as good as I can make it –for where my abilities are right now– it’s time to send it off and move on to something new. I believe you can only grow so much within any one given project. And I have to accept that I may look back on a piece of writing I did three years ago and cringe at my ham-handed attempt at some aspect of the craft. That’s part of letting it go.   
Mastering the ending is just another part of the process. Closing one door means that you’re free to step into the next adventure.

Michelangelo sketches an early draft

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