The Toughest Question A Writer Faces…
And It Has Nothing To Do With Your Story
Obsession with perfection is incompatible with creativity. It curbs your output and exacerbates self-doubt. It comes from the inability to answer the simplest of questions.
Am I finished?
It’s the most challenging question for a writer to answer. It shouldn’t be. It’s a simple yes or no answer. There are a dozen other questions that require greater cognitive strain.
What is the plot or subject?
Who is it for?
Who is the lead character?
What is her motivation?
What is his goal?
Who is the antagonist?
What change am I trying to make?
What is the title or headline?
Why is it so difficult to say I’m finished. Obsession with perfection is an expression of fear.
What if they don’t like it?
What if they ridicule me?
What if there’s a lingering typo?
I struggle with this myself, not with my blogging but with my fiction. There’s a simple mechanism to overcome the fear of rejection or self-doubt when it comes to blogging. But my novel is a different story (sorry for the bad pun).
I’ve gone through nine versions of my manuscript. I’m debated a tenth, but decided against it. I’m calling it. I know another version won’t improve it enough to warrant any further delay.
Perfection is impossible. We all know that intuitively. But how do you know when you’ve hit good enough?
I can do it with a blog post. What makes a novel or longer piece so much more difficult to conclude?
First, there is a crucial difference that has nothing to do with quality. If you’re on a schedule to post something daily, every other day or weekly, you have a built-in advantage.
If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to Publish by 7:00 PM tomorrow, you’ll meet the deadline. It’s an easy way to get around the indecision of the finish question. It’s not even a question of being comfortable with putting a bow on your masterpiece. You must publish at or before your deadline. Questions, doubts, fears be damned.
What if the story fails to meet your expectations? It’s disappointing but not a killer. You can try again tomorrow or next week. This exercise proves useful. I’ve written about several topics that went unnoticed after my first few attempts. By the third or fourth time, I had crystalized my thoughts enough to put together a compelling argument. The end product of that fourth attempt came out better than if I would have just edited the first version four times. I don’t know why that’s the case, but it always works out that way.
It’s different with a longer piece of work. What are another two weeks if you’ve already dedicated months? Plus, you’ve put in much more effort. You have more invested. The desire to keep polishing the apple becomes more intense.
How do we strike the right balance between perfection and good enough without the benefit of a deadline?
The Gut Question
Put away your formulas and scientific theories. Every piece of art can always be improved. It’s not a question of can you improve it. It’s a question of should you improve it.
In economic terms, you can look at it as an equation. How much money am I giving up in the next six months to rewrite my manuscript? Of course, it’s impossible to know. Who’s to say your planned rewrite will bring in an extra thousand, ten thousand or hundred thousand dollars? There’s no formula that will give you an answer. You’re going to have to employ a heuristic.
Heuristic — An approach to problem-solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method, not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, logical, or rational, but instead sufficient.
Here are five heuristics you can use to judge your near-finished product. Pick two or three to determine whether your work needs further attention.
Size The Scope Of Your Planned Rewrite
If you’re rewriting characters, developing their motivations and filling in plot holes, you’re probably not finished. In nonfiction, if you plan on revising the premise or changing your conclusion, a rewrite is necessary.
If you find yourself looking at a thesaurus to replace commonly used words or spending days contemplating a comma, you might want to think about wrapping things up.
Are reviewers and editors unanimously agreeing on weak points? If yes, you probably have more work to do. Does the input focus more on minor, trivial aspects? If they like and agree on the essentials, consider your story complete. You can tweak the unessential details for eternity.
Need to give it one more go? Try this sanity compromise. Give yourself a hard deadline to tweak the non-essential details. Then, stamp your work complete.
Compare Your Two Recent Versions
Is the new version better than the former? An answer in the negative can be a deflating revelation. Sometimes we harm our work by editing or revising too much. We edit and rewrite it to a point where we suck the life out of it, and it feels sterile.
Assess Your New Ideas
What would make your story better? Write down ten ideas. Be specific. Don’t write “more tension” or “add a cliffhanger.” Write out specific ideas that could improve your story. Put it aside for a week. Then, evaluate your improvement ideas or have someone familiar with the story do the evaluation. If your new ideas fail to improve, it’s a sign that your work has reached its conclusion.
Timing Is Everything
Would your new ideas be better served in a separate story or sequel? A great idea can come out of nowhere. It just pops into your head. It would be a shame not to use it. At least, that’s how we think. But no rule states you can’t save it and use it for another story. You don’t need to cram your best ideas into your current piece of work.
I run into this in my blogs. I try to keep every story focused on one big idea. It’s tempting to jam in another point or concept. “It’s such a great idea. I can’t leave it out.” Who hasn’t had that thought? Almost always, these new ideas weaken the overall premise and confuse the reader. Better to let it stand on its own.