How do you know when a project is finished?

My daughter looks at one of my paintings. “Is that finished yet Mum?

Stand up Sister – Trudi Sutcliffe ©

I study the painting. “I don’t think so. It needs something else.” (What that ‘else’ is, I just don’t know, it could be one of so many things.)

It looks finished to me. I think your problem Mum is that you over do it.”

Words from a babe can be so spot on.

With poetry I’m soooo lazy. I begin most poems with word mapping ideas/words. Flesh these words into a story, a poem. Then I read the poem out aloud listening for words and sentences that judder and clink and feel out of place. I work with these clunks and change the odd word and maybe play with the order of the stanzas. Then like magic, the poem is completed. Will my poetry win awards, I doubt it. But I do enjoy reading my poems aloud at readings, hoping someone will think/feel/or find some meaning or relationship within my poem and find a little bit of themselves within the words. These poems are far from perfect and are laden with bumps, grazes and sores, but I happy to let them go.

With my paintings I stare at the canvas and dream up another possibility, another design aspect or another idea to place somewhere in my work. But the problem is it is so much harder to delete images on a canvas like you do with words on a computer. So after adding a small detail I find the painting seems unbalanced so I add another small image/piece onto the canvas. Then it needs something else to balance what I just added and there is no coming back, you have no choice but to carry on. There is no delete button just a visual tragedy.

So I turn to the more experienced:

Our films are never truly finished. We just get to stop at our deadline. (Brad Bird)

 The painting is always finished before the artist thinks it is. (Harley Brown)

 At the end of the day, the only thing that counts is your insight, your reaction, and the way you convey your feeling towards the subject. (Alvaro Castagnet)

 When you get a thing the way you want it, leave it alone. (Winston Churchill)

 Finishing is torture… There’s always some newly seen flaw. But the little glimpses of beauty between the anxiety make it worth it. (Jacob Collins)


How do you complete a painting, really? There are paintings by so many different artists that are interesting precisely because they haven’t really been completed. (Peter Doig)

 It can be difficult to assess when a painting is complete. For this reason, I often set aside the painting to prevent overworking it. When I am unsure, I ask myself if doing more would add or take away from the purpose of the painting. (Mary French)

 That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it. (Alberto Giacometti)

 Sign it and ship it. (George De Groat)

 Perhaps I might be satisfied, momentarily, with a work finished at one sitting, but I would soon get bored looking at it; therefore, I prefer to continue working on it so that later I may recognize it as a work of my mind. (Henri Matisse)

 I’m never finished with my paintings; the further I get, the more I seek the impossible and the more powerless I feel. (Claude Monet)

 Woe to you the day it is said that you are finished! To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul – to give it its final blow; the most unfortunate one for the painter as well as for the picture. (Pablo Picasso)

 -b.AD 61 d.AD 112, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus… Too much polishing weakens rather than improves a work. (Pliny the Younger)

 -b.AD 61 d.AD 112, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus…Unfinished paintings are more admired than the finished because the artist’s actual thoughts are left visible. (Pliny the Younger)

 This internal struggle has been around for a long time as these quotes illustrate. It seems to me I need to consider these two points: unfinished is better than overworking and Henri Matisse’s quote: I prefer to continue working on it so that later I may recognize it as a work of my mind, and somehow complete my paintings somewhere between these two points.

 I’m currently writing my first YA novel and recently finished the first draft. I knew straight away I would have to rewrite the ending, as I wasn’t happy with the direction the novel was taking as I was writing, but I was at a point where I just had to finish the first draft. It was totally cliché country. And now after reading the first draft and discovering gaping holes such as several characters needing to be more rounded, the need to have more reason behind the characters’ actions and in some places I just haven’t dug deep enough. But as I’m writing this second draft and the next and possibly the one after that, how will I know when to stop? When I have dug enough?

How do you know when to stop? Is it an innate feeling you have or is it just a really good reader/editor?


2 thoughts on “How do you know when a project is finished?

  1. I think you write until the story feels like it has an ending that fulfills all the promises you made to the reader. Then you rewrite until you like the sound of it. And you stop when you find yourself spending more than three minutes debating the placement of a particular comma, or when you find that all you’re debating is the placement of commas.

    • Thanks Beckony for your comment. Good advice -not something I’ve never read before and I’ve read plenty of writing books! Really like the idea of the ending fulfilling all the promises you made to the reader.

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