Some say never. James Joyce was notorious for correcting his books till the very last second before he had to turn them over to the publisher—and after. When Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake was republished in 1945, four years after Joyce’s death, it appeared with a sixteen-page booklet of errata that Joyce had compiled after the first edition.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is automatic writing, where the author makes no edits. André Breton, creator of automatic writing, used this title for his guide to spontaneous composition in The Manifesto of Surrealism (1924):
SECRETS OF THE MAGICAL
Written Surrealist composition
first and last draft
This approach to writings holds that the most spontaneous, least edited utterances are the most finished. Why? Because, according to this aesthetic, the closer we get to the bubbling spring of our imagination, the more perfect the results.
That may be true for some writers—Jack Kerouac’s continuous roll of paper used to write On the Road comes to mind. (Someone should write a thesis on the connections between the Surrealists and the Beats!) But I think the law of averages is against spontaneity in literature. It’s like playing roulette and always betting on 22 black. You’ll win big every once in a while, but what about all the other times? How can you sustain that? In literature, as opposed to jazz, for example, spontaneity is hit or miss. More often, it’s miss. This may be because literature requires a critical and self-critical appraisal of the world and of one’s own writings.
In my own writing, I do countless drafts. I print out my work after each series of revisions because the human eye simply reads paper differently than it reads a computer screen.
At a certain point in the revision process, I realize that I’ve reached a spot where the changes I’m making are no longer improving the text. They are merely changing it. At this stage, I’m also switching things back and forth, inserting the same phrases I deleted earlier. When I get to this crossroads, I feel a work is done.
But I’ve also had the experience of thinking that one of my poems was finished, and then reading it in print several years later and feeling it really needed editing. I tweaked many of the poems in my book The Number Before Infinity when the second edition was released in 2014. Why? Years are like prescription lenses. They sharpen our vision.
I did notice when I reread my book before the new edition appeared that most of the poems I wanted to edit were not the poems I liked best. The poems that were my favorites, the ones I choose for readings, had assumed their final form more easily and earlier. Those I mostly left in peace.
I think each writer has to develop a personal sense of when a work is done, just as each writer has to develop a writing process. The answers will be different for different writers, just as James Joyce and André Breton, who were contemporaries, developed diametrically opposite writing methods around the same time, and both in Paris. These two writers were both fascinated by the subconscious and how it could reshape literature, but in Breton’s case, it was the spontaneity of the subconscious that mattered, while in Joyce’s case, showing the workings of the subconscious or superconscious involved a meticulous collage of words and fragments from a kaleidoscope of sources.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
How to Be an American Writer