Last week, I went on an underground tour of Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine (OTR) Neighborhood.
OTR was built in the mid-1800’s right next to the Miami Canal, a ghastly body of water filled with chamber pot runoff, and at certain times of the year, so many pig carcasses you could walk across it.
Pubs were an important part of life in this predominantly German neighborhood. To serve the thirsty masses, breweries built a series of underground tunnels so they could tap into the aquifer running beneath the city. This gave them sole access to the only fresh water around, making beer the drink of choice for every man, woman, and child.
While walking through these magnificent caverns, I had an idea. Why not use one newsletter per month to dig beneath your most common writing questions?
This month’s frequently asked question: How do you know when a project is finished?
Here are the four most common answers:
You’ve Reached the Deadline
If you write a regular blog, have an accepted pitch, or you’ve been commissioned to write something, completion is often deadline driven. Most writers revise until time’s up, then submit their work and hope it’s good enough.
Sometimes it’s accepted as is. At other times, it’s reworked, or you’re given a short period for revisions. If it’s still not up to snuff, some editors will kill your piece. Others will do a quick cleanup, then publish your imperfect words.
Depending on the stakes, and your awareness of your mistakes, you’ll either breathe a sigh of relief that it thankfully made it to print, or stew about minor errors like errant commas or clunky sentences.
You’ve Been Published
For most writers, being published is their goal. When it happens, this victory tastes so sweet. That’s largely because most publications are preceded by long strings of rejections.
If you’re in rejection purgatory, it likely means one of two things. Either your work isn’t a good fit for the publication, or it’s not ready. While all rejections are disappointing, the latter ones are a gift.
One of my essays was rejected fourteen times. Because I believed in it, I revised the piece after every third rejection. Looking back, I know early submissions had a murky storyline and weak sentences. But fixing them didn’t mean the essay was finished. Three years after writing the first draft, something happened that became the essay’s true ending. The event helped me figure out what the essay was really about. It also created a stronger landing point for the essay that strengthened my through line. While I hated receiving all those rejections, I’m now grateful for them.
The lesson I learned: sometimes a story isn’t complete until life happens. Until then, be patient, believe in your stories, and humbly revise your work.
That patience is essential.
Believe it or not, I regret a few of my acceptances. The first was an early contest win with a small literary journal that provided no editorial. At the time, all I cared about was getting published. Now, I cringe at the “winning” story, which was written while I was treating a traumatic brain injury. The overall story is good, but the writing could be so much better.
My other regret was a well-written essay that lacked the insight and compassion needed to take it from funny to poignant.
You’re Sick of It
Writing instructors regularly tell their students that being sick of a work in progress means it’s probably done. That’s not always the case. Sometimes we’re just tired of working on something.
If you think it might be done, send it to a few high-level places and see what happens. If it’s accepted, it was likely done. If it’s rejected, work on something else. In a few months, come back to your WIP with fresh eyes, and see if it’s actually done or if it could use a little more revision.
Nine times out of ten, it needs more revision.
You Feel it in Your Bones
Of all the forms of completion, this one’s the sweetest. You read your work out loud, and while you know a few words could be refined, the meaning is clear, the tone is right, and the sentences sing.
But better than that, the writing has transformed you—allowing you to see the world in a new way or settle something that’s haunted you. Some of these pieces get published and become the work you’re most proud of. Others will lovingly get tucked away because you know the internal work is the real victory. Healed, you now have clearer eyes and a more open heart.
Earlier in my writing career, I believed pieces like this were simply unfinished or failures. Now, I know they’re the most sacred work of all.
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