Put Down the Red Pen: How to Know When It’s Time to Stop Editing, and Send It In Already

Want to be absolutely sure your piece is done, and ready to be published, sent in, judged or otherwise digested by the human experience? Ask yourself these three questions.

The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.


3. Am I using the “Undo” function, or am I improving my piece?

When you’re editing, are you feeling ambiguous? Are you eliminating sentences, putting them back in, and removing them again? If you feel the need to tweak but can’t honestly say you’re making the work any better, it’s time to hang it up. Throw in the towel. It’s over.

2. Am I proofreading, or stalling?

So your deadline is today, and you’re still re-reading. And re-reading, re-reading, and re-reading some more. Does the idea of going to Submittable send you back into proofreading mode? Do you want to check it over “just one more time”? Stop. Hit send. You’re done.

1. Don’t ask “Is this my best work?”; ask “Can I do anything more?”

You’re never going to feel like you did a perfect job. Ever. That’s the nature of the creative process. A piece is never done. You just have to choose to stop working on it, once you’re pas a certain point. If you’re honest with yourself, can you make it better? Is there a better way to say it? Does the piece really reflect you, flawed and imperfect and creative as you are? Then just send it in.


Remember, it’s important to let go, once you submit a piece for review, publishing, or posting. Take a mental break. Do something else. Don’t write for a day or two. Recharge and when you come back to the table, don’t re-read what you’ve sent; start something new. Build your momentum. That way, you’re still a writer… not a waiter.


How do you know when your work is finished? Share it in the comments.


But Wait! There’s More.

There. You’ve seen it. My best Billy Mays impression.

Anyway, exciting news! My most recent essay, “Writing by Ear,” has gone live on the incomparable Women Writers, Women Books (booksbywomen.org). It’s a discussion that began several blog posts ago, and it’s the thorny, combative essay upon which I based this post. Have you ever wondered what musicians and writers have in common? Check out my piece on booksbywomen.org to find out.

  • Byron Edgington

    The great American poet laureate John Ciardi once said his fear when letting go of a poem was that he may have left part of it in his head. I think this fear is very real among writers of every genre. We tend to be perfectionists with our craft, so I suppose the only way to know if something’s ready to go into the cold, cruel world is to ask someone else. I compare it to sending our kids to school the first day. If they’re home by noon weeping and desolate, we sent them too soon, we left part of their development in our heads. Personally, I’m never sure when something’s ready. Too bad there’s no intermediate step between ‘I think it’s done,’ and the rejection or acceptance slip. The question points up the value of a good editor, I suppose.

    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      I agree. It’s all about wondering if your thought’s completely on the page, if it’s all the way out of your head. And editors are great, but I think it’s ultimately up to the writer to let go. An editor can tell you if a piece is ready, but he can never really tell you if YOU’RE ready.

  • Alice Kouzmenko

    Thanks for this! I am definitely a perfectionist and I am always changing random words that really don’t add or take away from the real meaning of the story. Great advice, I’ll definitely remember it!


    • http://www.theprocrastiwriter.com/ Shan

      Thanks, Alice! I think perfectionists get a bad rap – the world could use a few more perfectionists, don’t you think?

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