Isn’t it strange to consider that virtually all of the work human beings do is, in a sense, left “unfinished?” Sure, that big project you’re working on now has an end date. At a certain point, you will deliver the report or the presentation or the article.
But will you feel that it’s finished? If you were suddenly granted an unexpected two-hour extension, wouldn’t you keep adding to it or making small changes?
With creative work, the point is even clearer. I’m hard pressed to think of anything I create as finished. I could pluck from my website a random blog I published two months ago and see loads of improvements I could make. As much as I might want to continue working on a book or a blog article, though, I have to learn to let go. I have to decide when it’s ready to be published and press the button. But how do I know when it’s ready?
This question plagues a lot of creative people. Not having a clear answer is one reason half-written blog posts languish on your desktop, authors spend years writing their memoirs, and artists trip over stagnant canvases strewn about their studios. So, I’m going to discuss what signals or triggers I look for to decide that my work is ready for prime time.
What does “ready for prime time” mean?
Before we can identify the signals to look for, we’ve got to know what we’re aiming for. When I say something is “ready for prime time,” importantly, I’m not suggesting that it’s “good enough.” This might be what I mean when I declare the end of a home improvement project — good enough for me to look at for the next decade — but I hold my client work to a higher standard.
For me, “ready for prime time” means that the piece of writing has accomplished its goal:
- It has a beginning, a middle, and an end
- It has a clear angle, opinion, or theme and every section relates back to that angle, opinion, or theme
- It rewards its audience for reading
As long as I can point out how the article meets these three criteria, the piece is ready for delivery or publication. I don’t seek perfection. I don’t aim to write my Magnum Opus on every topic. I aim for “ready for prime time.”
So the first step is to figure out what your criteria are. Even with these criteria, though, it might not be obvious to you when a piece that you’ve written is ready to ship. In many cases, feeling unsure is all about your mindset. Writing an article for an external publisher or doing a guest post, you might be wondering, “will the editors accept this?” While this is a valid question to ask, it will not help you answer the question “is this ready to ship?”
When you’re battling your inner critic who is trying to persuade you that your work isn’t ready to share, it’s not helpful to ask yourself questions you can’t answer. In fact, it’s only grist for your inner critic’s mill. You’re not in control of what the editors will do. All you can control is hitting the criteria you’ve set for yourself (which likely includes key items from the submission guidelines).
Instead, ask yourself, “does this piece meet its goal?” and refer back to your set of criteria.
One default signal you might look for is a particular time stamp: “I promised the editor I’d send this piece by the end of the week. It’s the end of the week, so I’ll send whatever I have.” Timestamps are not a great signal for me, however.
Putting strict time pressure on anything creative is a recipe for writer’s block or artist’s block (or whatever the equivalent for artists is actually called). Some days my brain seems more interested in consuming content than producing content and I need to allow for those days. I need to remember that consuming content is also productive and not to confuse productivity with creativity.
Deadlines do help me focus on the delivery of my content, however. Without deadlines, work can more easily languish. So I set flexible deadlines for myself saying, “if all goes well this week, I’ll have my client work off of my plate by Thursday afternoon.” This is good motivation, but also if the work needs a couple of extra hours, I’m okay with that.
While a deadline can give me a helpful container within which to create, my brain is not like an Amazon warehouse full of ideas I can take down from the shelf. Some ideas take longer to wrestle to the ground than I first expect.
Another signal you might use as a default to tell you when something is ready to be shipped is word count. Like deadlines, this is another helpful container for my creativity. Word count is more useful to me than deadlines because once I have an outline, I know roughly how much time to spend on each part. And once I’ve hit the key points in each part, I have a complete draft.
Now, technically, when you have a complete draft, you may have a piece that’s ready to ship because ideally, at this point, it has met its goal. But you’ll definitely want to edit your first draft.
It’s always good practice to sleep on a first draft before diving into editing. After letting your writing marinate, you’ll be able to come back with a fresh perspective and catch all of those tiny errors that would have bugged you later had you shipped the first draft. I confess that I don’t always follow this practice, however.
Sometimes I’m simply ready to get this thing checked off of my to-do list. In these cases, I’ll take a quick break before coming back to edit and ship the piece off. Doing this occasionally is also good practice for shipping unfinished work. It actually helps me learn to let go.
Truly, knowing when “unfinished” work is ready to be published or shared is as simple as this:
- Step 1: Come up with your criteria
- Step 2: Make sure you have an outline and that your first draft fills in all of the blanks (i.e., if you promise four tips, don’t give only three)
- Step 3: Sleep on your first draft
- Step 4: Edit your first draft
- Step 5: Ship, deliver, send, or publish
I don’t know about you, but it’s comforting for me to know that my work is not supposed to feel finished. Creative work is always “unfinished,” but that doesn’t mean it’s low quality or slapped together. It means the human brain is constantly evolving.
Seeing my work as the start of a conversation, rather than the final word is the ultimate signal that this “unfinished” work is ready for prime time. And with that, I’m going to publish this latest “unfinished” piece.
Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books. Find out your writer type with her Writer Profile Quiz.