SLANT LETTER: How Do You Know When Your Work Is Ready?
Three questions to help ease the transition from “work in progress” to “going public.”
When my daughter was born this past December, I read about women who deeply missed the presence of being pregnant after giving birth. This wasn’t me necessarily, but I understood it.
Nine months a mystery, then suddenly there was contact, eyes before mine, blue to blue. I experienced this as a riddle: how is it that she has never been so separate from myself, yet at the same time, we are closer than ever before? How is it that the only way I could hold her, know her, is to release her from my very self?
I realized I had survived her first becoming, and now I would spend a lifetime surviving her second—as our dyad gently gives way to distinction, and she grows into a person fully her own.
It’s okay to miss the kicks, but it would not be right for me to keep my daughter from the growth she’s meant for, to refuse to release her to a life of her own. If I did, this would be an expression of possession, not of love.
This riddle hums at the heart of not just parenting, as I am learning, but of the creative life as well.
Ultimately, creating any kind of art is an act of surrender. Creativity entails great personal risk, as you put yourself in your work, and offer it up bravely, vulnerably to a world where you are not in control of what happens. But this release is the only way your work can experience a life of its own.
When we talk about the writing life we tend to focus on the flow, the creation itself. Yet I don’t think we talk nearly enough about the inevitable end of the process—our surrender of it. And this is especially tricky because there is no clear threshold of completion for this subjective work.
So how do you know when you’re ready to hit submit, to make that pitch? How do you know when your work is ready for print? How do you know your writing is ready to go public, in any form?
I might suggest a few questions to guide us on this. So let’s say you’ve done the work, you’ve honed and polished and are just kind of hovering over the “send” or “publish” button with fear and trepidation (sounds about right!).
1) Are the borders on this project where they need to be?
Every writing project has its natural edges, which gives its form. Whether an essay, article, book, or short-form post, the point is not to say ALL THE THINGS but “to illustrate something correctly,” as Marion Roach Smith says so well. So every piece needs its borders, which to me means two things. First, have you said the boldest statement you have to say about your subject matter, and is the work structured to support this bold statement? This is about keeping the main thing the main thing. Second, have you done the work of distilling any tangents, adjacent ideas, and sidebars that would otherwise clutter and detract from the main thing?
The time will come when you will need to put a period at the end of your work. Consider if your borders are where they need to be, and if you find that they are, you can do so with confidence. Better yet, find a few friends whose feedback you can trust, and then do just that: trust their honest feedback!
2) Are you genuinely advancing your work, or are you at a point where you’re just tinkering?
Your immediate gut on this is the one you can trust. You will know whether you are in an active state of flow, or if you’re merely plugging in synonyms or rearranging the furniture. Put another way, is your writing in active labor—are you still making discoveries, fresh connections, constellations?—or are you belaboring, elaborating where elaboration isn’t necessary, pushing a point that stands for itself. You can trust your instincts to know if you are furthering your work, or simply going in circles.
3) Are you experiencing a creative hang-up or are you holding back out of a desire for control?
After all the angst and hours you’ve poured into your work, it can be a frightening revelation to realize that the time will come to let it loose into the wild. And at this point writers often feel the panic of losing control. It all feels so final, and that can make us feel constrained. What if you want to make changes later?! What if people don’t like it? What if publishing is a terrible, unretractable mistake?
These are valid fears. But I like this question better for us: are you prepared to relinquish control for something far better—live conversation? Ideas are social creatures, they are meant for relationship.
I like to think of writing as the liturgical form of call and response.
A writer is someone who initiates a conversation with readers, opening up a dynamic exchange that takes on new layers as readers bring their own thoughts, questions, and life experiences to what they read. But none of this is possible without release.
It may seem safer to keep our drafts safely locked away in our sole possession, but possession is still life, a butterfly on a pin, stale air behind museum glass. Is that really what we want for our art?
Think back to when your idea first originated, how compelled you were to bring it beyond itself, beyond yourself, into a conversation. What good is being swept up into something bigger than ourselves, if we are only willing to keep it for ourselves?
I say this with love: no good art is created from a clenched fist. The way of the writer is trust and release.
If you never let go,
your work will never get to have a life of its own in the wild,
readers will never get to experience your words,
you will cut your readers out of the very conversation you set out to host for them in the first place.
It’s okay to miss the kicks. It’s normal to feel the trepidation of releasing something into a world where you have zero control, zero guarantee of safety. It’s true what they say: no one is ever “ready” to bring a child into the world, as if there’s some secret rubric able to qualify you for such an event.
It’s just as true for the creative: if you’re waiting to feel ready, you probably never will; there is only trust and release. But then—and only then—you, and your readers with you, can experience the thrill of contact, a story to unfold, a life to witness.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
Find a Good Thing Here?
This letter is this editor's off-hours labor of love. If you've found something useful here, would you pass it on to a fellow writer friend?
P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is about both craft + soul care for the creative life. So today, I want to speak this blessing for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk.