I was informed recently that there is a quote from Stephen King advising that a writer should always work on a piece of writing until it is finished and never abandon it before that point is reached. There is another quote from poet Paul Valery saying that a poem is never finished, but simply abandoned.
The apparent conflict between these two statements is, I believe, more of the definition one gives to the word “abandon.” I agree with both of them. There have been many times I have been stalled in the middle of a piece, not being able to make any headway toward finishing it. When, by using any number of methods, I did get around to finishing the piece, it turned out to be a very satisfactory effort—well worth finishing. On the other hand, I find that when I pick up a piece I finished some time ago I invariably find some things I want to change.
I was shown another aspect of the matter when I was taking some courses in painting. There is a danger in trying to over-improve a work. Sometimes the crisp strokes of a first effort have more value than overworking something in order to improve it. The principle is as valid in writing as in painting.
When is a work finished and when is it simply abandoned? I think it is more a matter of opinion than anything—a cross between sticking with a piece through thick and thin and simply knowing when to quit.