One of the nastier afflictions that haunts writers (and I mean ALL types of writers, not just writers of fiction) is the Sandpaper Curse. I call it that because woodworkers (of which I am one) know this same curse, in regards to polishing.
Now, all sanding is a form of polishing, the use of grit to grind down a surface smoother than it was before. A woodworker starts out with a sandpaper a little smoother than the surface of the wood. When the wood is as smooth as the sandpaper, the artisan chooses a slightly finer grade of paper, moving on down until the wood is as smooth as he wishes it to be.
For a man building a yard-chair or a garden cart or a rustic chest, the final smoothness may be just enough that there are no rough surfaces or splinters. If he is building an item of furniture, to be used in an average house, the wood will be sanded and polished to a point where it is finely smooth to the touch, with no traces of scratching or imperfection visible on a cursory inspection. The woodworker artist, making a fine jewelry chest or a beautiful wardrobe will take it even further. The surface will be perfect, as smooth as glass, ready to take the finish that will turn its surface into a mirror.
But to each of these men is presented a problem. When they reach the level of experience necessary to easily solve this problem each time it occurs, they may be considered masters of their art. That problem: when to stop sanding.
It seems such a small thing, something that should be intuitive, even simple. It is not. And so it is with writers. When does an author stop sanding his story? The woodworker moves his creation into the light, looking down the length of it and sighs, seeing still more imperfections to fix. The writer rereads his chapter and winces, hearing every wrong note, every poor choice of words, every illogical plot variation.
The observers, the untutored and unpracticed, look on in awe, staring at the excellent piece of craftsmanship that sits before them, whether it is of lumber or of ink. They study it, wondering where the skill came from, where the tireless hours of work went. They admire the surface, so delicately sanded down, imperfections removed. But the creator sees only the flaws which he has not yet removed.
How to know when to stop? The secret, so desperately needed, consciously or unconsciously? That is something every writer must learn for themselves. Some listen to their readers, friends and family that were allowed to read the unfinished manuscript. Some listen to their editors or agents. Some finally get tired of doing that next edit and just say “It’s done, I won’t do any more”. Some do all three.
If you work hard at writing, not stopping ought of despair or boredom, writing stories, short or long, fiction or non-fiction, you will have a pile of papers that need to be read. If you’re terrified they aren’t good enough, that they need at least one more polish, go ahead, do it again. But have someone else read them while you do. Remember, you will see the things you missed, the imperfections you passed over, glaring out at you from the ink.
But the reader? He sees all the things you sanded down to perfection. If you got even a little bit right, he’ll be staring in awe, wondering how you managed it.