When is a piece of writing finished?

Paul Valéry is often cited for suggesting ‘a poem is never completed, only abandoned’­ – I understand W H Auden also used this adage (and credited Valéry). Since its first use in 1933, the phrase has been more widely applied. For example, a work of art … a book … a film … is never completed merely/only abandoned. This implies that the experience of never actually believing a piece of work to be finished is widely felt. Yet there does come a point when it’s not possible to invest any more creative energy into a project and it has to end, sometimes for the sake of getting on with new work. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean the work is cast aside, but it might be time for a writer to take the plunge and submit the piece to a competition or send it off in answer to a call for submissions. It is our hope that the work will be published so that it can reach an audience. For without readers, what is the purpose of writing? (Unless you’re writing for a diary, of course.)

In an interview, I was recently asked what was the biggest single lesson I’d learnt while writing my second contemporary novel This Much Huxley Knows. This is how I answered: even when I thought the manuscript was finished, it wasn’t. I kept working on it until I could literally recite every word. 

 I wonder, is this a good measure for deciding when a piece of writing is finished? What do you say? 


  1. Probably the only thing that stops a writer from fiddling with a manuscript is to have a publisher forcefully extract it from under the writer’s poised pen. That’s assuming a publisher is waiting for it, of course. Those of us not quite so blessed will continue to improve or dis-improve a text at will. It’s destiny.

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