How to Know When You’re Done

How to Know When You’re Done

John McPhee
(Princeton University)

I am nowhere near as skilled and talented a writer as the great John McPhee, but I do identify with his thoughts on “how you know when you’re done” with a piece of writing.

In the second chapter of his book on non-fiction, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, McPhee describes what he calls “the struggle for satisfaction at the end”:

Ending pieces is difficult and usable endings are difficult to come by. It’s nice when they appear in appropriate places and times.
 
I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write. William Shawn [who edited The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987] told me one time my pieces seemed a little strange because they seemed to have three or four endings. That surely is a result of preoccupation of structure.
 
In any case, it may have led to an experience I have sometimes had in the struggle for satisfaction at the end.
 
Look back upstream. If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there. That you were finished before you thought you were.
 
People often ask how I know when I’m done. Not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions for one word for another, how do I know there is no more to do. When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way.
 
What I know is I can’t do any better. Someone else might do better. But that’s all I can do, so I call it done.

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