When to Stop Writing

When we write and tell stories, we know to start at the beginning, develop the middle (conflict, character), then come to some conclusion, whether it be resolution or irresolution. Some stories might require a lengthy beginning and middle and a terse ending, or vice versa. The point is that narratives start, occur, and end, whereas poetry does not yield to these restrictions. Yes, poems must “begin” somewhere and “end” eventually or else the reader will walk away from it and the writer will die before the thing is finished, but the conclusion of a poem is never as well-defined or as latent as that of a story. In his essay “The End of the Poem,” which we read in the beginning of the semester, Agamben contemplates that poems might never end, they may resonate outward, infinitely, eliminating the risk of falling into prose. I’ve been finding this semester that my biggest difficulty in writing poetry is not beginning but ending. I rarely know when to keep writing, when to insert a new stanza, or when to just end the thing. My issue is less about how the poem ends, which seems to be Agamben’s primary concern, but rather when the poem ends, and why.


My most recent exercise poem is a whopping one sentence taking place over five medium-length lines. After I finished writing I pondered what would come next–how could I elaborate or progress or uncover this poem? After some time I read and re-read the poem, deciding that, for now, it was done the way it was. There was nothing more I could think of adding that would improve it. The poem didn’t need anything. Now, I may be wrong (I’m sure I am), and if I decide to workshop this poem I’m sure I’ll realize how much more I could do with it, or how inadequate it actually is. But as of now I have ended the poem where I think it needs to end, though I’m still not entirely sure why. Why do we end our poems where we do?


Do you guys also find yourselves struggling with dropping the pen (halting your tapping fingers)? Do you think shorter poems are a result of laziness (probably, in my case) or that some poems just don’t need as much space? And what of longer poems, like those of T.S. Eliot? Why extend a poem and why truncate it?

3 Replies to “When to Stop Writing”

  1. I’ve definitely had this problem. This might not be any help, but generally when I’m writing a first draft I feel a poem is done when I feel like the poem has exhausted whatever it needed to release. This doesn’t mean that I got the job done, (I always get those first draft feels ughhhhhh) but at least I feel like I got everything out that I needed to at that specific moment in time.

    As I revise sometimes length will change, but I personally don’t tend to add or take away huge chunks. As for when a poem feels “done,” I’m still figuring that one out. I’ve gotten several different answers when I’ve asked that exact same question: how do I know when I’m done? I’ve been told to lay a poem to rest when I’m happy with it–content and confident in my writing choices. That’s sort of the advice I’ve been running with. As writers we are constantly growing and changing, and that’s the beauty of our craft. Personally I don’t totally buy the whole “a poem is never finished” argument because I think if keep going back to old poems with revisions that we like at the current time, we’ll end up changing the integrity of the work.

    What do other people think about this? Does anyone else especially struggle with this, or find that ending a poem comes more easily to them?

  2. When I’m writing and I reach the end, I just sort of feel it. It sounds really lame but most of the time I’m like, “Yep. That’s it. Bye. You’re done.” And then I put the poem away. Usually if I think it’s an attention-grabbing image that pushes the speaker further or encapsulates the narrative of the poem, I’ll end it there.

    I feel like when I struggle to have that ending feeling, I’ll end up revising it a lot. When it comes more natural and feels like the right spot to end, then I won’t revise the end as much. Perhaps I should be switching approaches though because of the “Christina wraps up her endings” deal. But sometimes when I end a poem and it feels right, it’s like “Well of course I would just end on hummingbirds, are you nuts?” Does that make sense?

    There isn’t really a set technique to ending poems. Maybe it’s like love–you know when you feel it.

  3. With first drafts I know to stop writing when I either feel like “Ok, this is in a good place for now” or “I really can’t stand this anymore.”

    But to stop writing after your first draft is rarely beneficial to the poem. A question I use that works around 70 percent of the time when knowing when to add is “where exactly do I want to add?” For me the safest go-ahead is usually the middle, if something needs fleshing out simply through more words. If the beginning or ending aren’t functioning properly there’s a better solution than more words.

    Of course, there’s always the thought of pushing past the ending, making it the middle. I’m only offering suggestions of how to know when to stop writing, not how to end a poem.

    When it comes to the length of poems one important thing to consider is what the poem is trying to discuss. If it ‘s discussing a moment in the subway station it may only need two lines, if it’s discussing a cultural malaise over Europe it may need a few more. This isn’t to say that long poems can’t talk about nothing and short poems can’t be incredibly spacious despite their stature.

    John Ashbery’s “Thoughts of a Young Girl” comes to mind.

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