The question, really, is about revision. When do you know you’re finished revising and there is no more rewriting to do? I’ve heard authors answer that question in person and I’ve read about published authors answering that question. My favorite that I heard in person is “When it’s published, but even then………” I don’t remember who the author was, but I sure do remember the answer.
Here’s my favorite answer that I’ve read about:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956)
When I read that, what I wanted to know right away is, how did he keep track of how many times he rewrote it? He lived in the days before computers. I don’t know if he wrote longhand or used a typewriter or both, but in either case it seems problematic to keep track of that many revisions. And then I kept thinking about the number of times – 39. I don’t keep track of how many times I rewrite things, but even so I don’t think I’ve rewritten anything that many times.
Another way to look at the question of revision is – when can I let go of a story or chapter and not try to tinker with it or change any more words? Is there some magic thing that happens at that point? Is there an inner voice that tells you, “Yes, it’s finished, you’ve done the best that you can do with this, all the words are the right words.”
The question of revision is one thing I’ve been grappling with lately. Knowing when to stop tinkering, when I can let go, when it’s really finished. How about the rest of you writers out there? How do you know it’s finished?