How do you know when to stop?

The Definition of Done

Given a project with a limited timeframe, you can only do so much before you have to finish. That’s fine if you don’t care about the quality, but publishing a book to a world audience without careful vetting would be committing author suicide. So how do you get the most out of what you write without going over the deadline and without writing half a story?

I’ve discussed this at length in a previous post so I don’t want to talk about that again. Instead, I want to discuss the Definition of Done. When is something done? When it’s finished. Obvious. How about: when it’s finished to a predetermined level of quality? Better, perhaps.

I was cutting the grass today. It was only when I’d finished and put the lawnmower away I started noticing all the bits I’d missed – there were small patches of long grass everywhere. I was obviously too close to the grass when I was mowing to see where it was uneven. The grass is pretty much all one colour and it’s difficult to see the bits you’ve missed when you’re right on top of it. You only see the bigger picture when you step back and look at it with fresh eyes.

This got me thinking about writing and my dilemma over identifying something as done.

The finish

In order to get a quality product to a level of satisfaction, you need a cool down period, some time away from your immediate thoughts of it. In the case of the grass, this was going indoors and looking back at it from the window. In the case of writing it means forgetting everything you know about your text and reading it back through the eyes of a new reader. This is the most important step towards quality: disassociation. If you can forget why you wrote something, you can read it and make up your own mind about it. If you can forget all the meta writing and scaffolding you can look at it objectively.

I’ve decided to take steps towards this in my writing. I need to disconnect writing and editing as far as possible. Unfortunately, as this project is time constrained, this gap will not be as much as I’d like. I’m considering a two week closed book on everything written, continually revisiting the text written two weeks ago. This means that the first two weeks writing remains unedited until editing starts alongside with any new writing. The end effect is that I need to finish writing everything two weeks before I can expect it to be fully finished and edited.

It sounds like I just lost two weeks of writing at the end of the project, but if it means an improved product in the long run, I’m all up for it.

Do you have any experience or opinion on how to write a quality product given limited resource? Leave a comment below to discuss.


2 thoughts on “How do you know when to stop?

  1. I remember writing short stories for my college class — we’d have a week to write it, then it would be shown around the class, then a week to rewrite it before it went up for public view again. I wasn’t the best student there (it was literary fiction which I feel pretty ‘meh’ about so I can’t say I put my best foot forward) but I found then, and I continue to find now, that after a couple days of cool-off time from the work, my brain starts bubbling with realizations of what I did wrong, what I need to fix, where I should go from here, etc. Sometimes I hit that point just an hour or two after I’ve stepped away from the writing. I definitely think that if you get these editorial ideas early, you need to write them down; I have an entire file dedicated to edits I plan to do when I go through for a rewrite. Two weeks — I can’t say whether that’s a good time-frame or not, but in the pressurized situation you’ve put yourself in, it seems reasonable.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this – I don’t know what the best way to edit as you go but will experiment and see how I get on. My concern is that with so much new writing to do, I’ll have to make sure I have a structured approach to editing to make sure it all gets done. If the gap between writing and editing can be brought down to less than a week, it would probably reduce the risk in the project – that’d be a very good thing!

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