Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Aiming for Perfection

I’m going to warn you. This is going to get pretty nerdy. I’m almost scared to post this. Please if you’ve never been to this site, read a few other posts before making any judgments. :)

I’m writing this anyway despite my reservations because I think it is something that needs to be said even if my way of saying it is a little nerdy.

On the writing sites I frequent, I hear this advice a lot. Write the story, do an editing pass or two, then submit it, and start writing the next story. Don’t spend too much time revising a story, you learn faster by writing a new stories. I want it to be clear right now, I do think this is good advice for many writers. You can get trapped in endless revisions and editing, and the more stories you write, the better you will get. This definitely can lead to success, as I’m sure it has.


What if you feel strongly about the story? What if you can see its flaws and know how to fix them? What if you really really believe in it, know it has the potential to be publishable, but it isn’t quite there yet?

Should you send it out, give up on it, and move on? Or is it worth putting a little more work into it, rewriting, revising, and editing until you’ve done the best you can, even if it takes months or years?

I think sometimes when you have a story you really believe in, you can’t give up on it. Kathryn Stockett the bestselling author of The Help didn’t even after sixty rejections from agents, and her family and friends urging her to write something else. She believed in the book, and she kept working on it. It took her five years to finish it, but it turned out to be a best seller. J.R.R. Tolkien spent ten years writing The Lord of the Rings, and we all know how successful that story was.

But it is hard to know when you fall into the trap of eternal revision and editing. Like Leonardo da Vince said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

So how do you know when you should abandon your art?

Okay so here is the nerdy part.

I am a science geek and love graphs and stuff. So this is my theoretical graph (there is no data to support this) of editing and/or revising. While there is no data to support my theoretical graph, this is how, from my limited experiences, revisions and editing seems to go for me.

I “plotted” the quality of the manuscript (y-axis) versus the effort put in (x-axis). Please bear with me. I spent way too much time on this graph, but if you simply can’t stomach it, you can go to the asterisk at the end.*

The straight line across the graph labeled perfection is called an asymptote which means, for you non-nerds, that the curved blue line will never reach the perfection line. You can put an infinite amount of effort into a story and it will never reach perfection. You will inch closer and closer to it, but you will never reach it.

Now indulge me a little and look at the curved blue line. In the beginning (which I labeled A) the quality of the work increases greatly with just a little effort. See how steeply the curve rises at the beginning. This is when you are fixing those plot wholes, adding depth to characterization, cutting and rearranging scenes. A little (relative) effort dramatically increases the quality.

At region B, it starts to slow down. A lot more work has to go into it to see a change in quality. Notice how the curve is rounding at B. This is when the storyline is solid, and you are working on the finer editing; doing line by lines, polishing the writing, fixing the grammar sentence by sentence. It is a lot of work, and it does increase the quality, but it takes a lot more effort to do so.

Now you can fiddle endlessly with line edits. If you are staring at the same sentence for twenty minutes, taking out words just to put them back in, dithering on every word choice, you’ve reached region C where the curve is essentially a flat line with little or no change in quality despite tons of effort being done. This is where you can edit forever with very little or no significant change in your story. This is where you need to stop.

But honestly, why would you abandon your story when you are in the A or even B region? Where you can make dramatic increases in quality with little relative effort?

I think it is easy to impatient with writing. If you are like me, you have shiny new ideas piling up while you are writing, and they try to lure you away from your editing. It’s tempting to move on.

But if you really believe in the story, don’t you want to give it the best shot it has of reaching an audience?

The book industry, whether you go the traditional route or self-publish, is very competitive. I just don’t know how I can hope to succeed unless I’m submitting my very best work.

Now I’m not saying you should do this for every story. Some stories need to be abandoned earlier especially if you are not excited about it anymore or it is essentially unfixable. Nor am I saying that my way is the only way.

But sometimes there are stories that burn inside you that you really need to tell, those are the ones that you should not give up on, that you should at least aim for perfection.

Honestly, those are the only ones I want to write.


*If you really can’t stand graphs, my overall point is, at some point in editing, you are spending a lot of time fiddling with the words, but are not significantly changing the overall quality of the story. Once you’ve reached that point, that is when you abandon your story and send it out into the cold, cold world.


  1. I'm a nerd! I love graphs ;) And I totally agree that there is a law of diminishing returns the more you edit, especially line editing. (You can even get to negative returns if you start messing with stuff that was already pretty darn good.)

    This is part of why I no longer aim to follow the advice to let a MS sit and percolate for a month before you edit. Every time I step away from my WIP for too long, when I come back I want to change EVERYTHING, and that's just counterproductive.

    Great post. Another one I'll be coming back to for reassurance ;)

  2. I think you have to be a nerd to be a proser. It's part of the definition... or maybe it should be...

    (I'm going to change something, be right back.)

    Back to topic...

    For me, when I start searching for perfection, it means I'm trying to write like someone else.

    The only thing I can do, ( I tell myself) is fix everything you want to see fix, make sure there's no random weird words, ( like an instead of and, or the random extra the), Then I check its verses it's, and tense shifts.

    Then it's time to abandon it.

    I personally don't worry to much about needing to tell a particular story, all of my stories, not matter the genre, end up having pieces of the same story anyway.

    Great post.

  3. Be proud to be a nerd. No apologies needed. mm

  4. Ack, MaryAnn, I needed to hear this today. You officially helped me move on.

    I've got a book my daughter wants me to work on publishing. I keep telling her I'll do it as soon as I've been through it one more time. It doesn't really NEED one more time. I know that. What I really want to do is rewrite the whole story, using the things I've learned about plot and writing love stories. But that would ruin the story, and I love the story.

    So I'm going to do it. I'm going to reread it one last time, not expecting to fix anything but an occasional misspelling, and then I'm going to get it out there.(Yeah, that's the part I hate enough to quit writing altogether.)

    Great post!

  5. LOL Sheena - nice addition to our blog title.

    MaryAnn, we're all your nerdy buddies. Love the graph. Now, if I could only recognize when I've passed 'B' and moved on to 'C'.

    Thanks for the wonderful encouragement.

  6. There is something to be said about giving a story a little time to breath. I write a story and then let it sit for awhile and then approach it in a week or two later and get insights that I didn't have when I first drafted it. That might be working in the A to B range.

    I think writers need to understand their writing style and program that in to how they work. Obviously obsessing about a story with little result but a comma change here and a word change there for weeks on end is counter-productive, but if we need some time away from a story to get a more objective read later on, I think that's fair game.

    As in so many other things, you need to learn to know yourself and then proceed from there.

  7. Loved the graphs!

    And I agree totally about making sure your book is the best it can be (within reason). I have a "heart book" that I wrote a long time ago, but it was a bit beyond my skill level. Several years went by, I improved as a writer, and I re-edited it. Now it's the book I always wanted it to be.

  8. I'm definitely traveling along C with my current short story WIP. I'm growing to hate it. It was ready three weeks ago, but I kept giving it to one more reader, just one more...

    However, I will add that my finalist for WotF went a different route.
    A to B back to
    A to B back to
    A to B then a little C.

    How do complete rewrites work on the graph? I would imagine there's a sharper curve in the beginning. A to B quickly.

    I really believed in that story, but I didn't think traveling along C would get it where it needed to be, so I kept starting over until it "felt" right.

    However, I'm glad I didn't send it out at the first B, because it really wasn't ready, and the idea would have been spent.

    Maybe for folks who have ideas aplenty, this is OK, but ideas to me are nuggets of gold. I have to forge each one into a fine piece of jewelry because I don't know when the next one will come along.

  9. Love the addition to the title, Sheena.

    Thanks for all the awesome comments and helping me feel a little less nerdy. :)

    @Sarah, I definitely agree that you could get a negative slope at some point in the C region. :)

    @Sheena, perfect example of how every writer needs to figure out what works best for themselves. BTW, Can't wait to read Hatched (love your cover and blurb).

    @Anonymous, thanks for the encouragement.

    @Melanie, awesome, glad I could help.

    @Susan, that is the tricky part. I'm working on that too.

    @Owsam, excellent points. Fresh eyes are always helpful. I definitely need to take breaks from my stories now and again. I think it is pretty awesome how we all have our own writing ways of doing things.

    @Connie, I didn't think of about that. But you are so right. Sometimes we don't have the skill to write our dream book, but you can always come back to it later once you do. Thanks for commenting.

    @Dustin, I'm the same way. It takes me a long time to develop a premise from a vague story idea to well-developed plot. For me, they are worth puting a lot of effort into. But everyone is different. Congrats on being a finalist on WoTF (although I've probably already congratulated you on hatrack). That is awesome. Thanks for sharing how you did it.


    I'm definitely guilty of over-editing certain stories. In my case, I'm still learning about properly using edits. I've accepted them whole cloth before - only to have markets tell me in their rejection notes that they didn't like a certain plot point or character development that I had changed based on a reviewer's comments.

    From that situation, I derive 1)You can never please everyone, and 2)listen to your own voice and vision for the story first. You might still get rejected several times, but you won't have gone through an annoying amount of revisions getting there.

  11. I definitely belong in the nerd category but I was never called one in my childhood or puberty. Perhaps this is why it took me until graduating in physics to realize it. American nerds have it easy: you get recognized, stigmatized, bullied, threatened, assaulted and god knows what else. How I envy you...

  12. LOL, Martin. I was never bullied,threatened or sigmatized. Contrary to what TV and movies show, most nerds get through American schools just fine, some are even popular.

    At least that is how it was where I came from. :)

  13. @ Sabrina, excellent points. I'm a big believer in trusting your voice and your vision. It is your story, and you should tell it how you want to tell it.

    My problem seems to be getting the story in my head down on paper. :)

  14. This was well thought out and I enjoyed it. It helped me see things differently, too.

    I will take away from this some helpful and useful information. :)

    - C@R3Y

  15. Thanks C@R3Y, I'm so glad it was helpful. :)


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