Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Writing 101: Can You Over-Edit?

Authors have to be detail-oriented. They're misplaced comma hunters, grammar Nazis, word warriors. But that ongoing quest to write a perfect book is exhausting, time-consuming...and impossible.


My quest for perfection has been going on for about two weeks, ever since I finished the first draft of my newest book. Almost the minute I was done, I started re-reading and editing. I finished the first read (after I corrected about forty thousand mistakes) and immediately uploaded the book to my Kindle so I could read it in a different way.

I used this to give myself about 40 more notes, some of them perhaps added in a weird insomniatic stupor. I'm saying that because some of it doesn't make any sense. I have certain words highlighted and I seriously don't even know why.

It took me a few days to realize that I was needlessly making myself crazy. I'm picking over every little comma and obsessing over Microsoft Word suggestions and re-writing scenes only to discover I already addressed this problem in the very next scene. I'm running myself all 'round the pages of my book and tearing it all to shreds, and I'm only doing it because I have an insane need to make it perfect

But it can't be. I know, because I've personally read more than one perfect book. There is no true perfect in books, no one novel that can be all things at all times to everyone. There are days when Gone With the Wind might be perfect, but then there are days when it's too damn sad (that's a tribute to Mitchell herself). There are days when Anne of Green Gables is just the perfect book, and then days when I can't deal with her cheerfulness. 

There is no perfect. It's possible to eradicate most of your punctuation errors. It's possible to get almost all of those 60,000 words spelled correctly. It's possible to research well and fact-check it all and be certain that yes, olives do grow in the wild in this part of Spain. It's not possible to write a book that's perfect. You will always go back and you will always have new thoughts and you will always wonder what might have happened if you'd done something else instead. 

So stop making yourself crazy. Take a deep breath, take a break from that book and keep in mind that you've got to finish the book at some point. Edit out the errors. Edit the readability. Make sure you've done everything you had hoped to do. And then let go. Because yes, you can over-edit. Leonardo DaVinci carried around the Mona Lisa for about two decades, because he wasn't done painting it yet. To his dying day, he thought that painting was unfinished. We have been celebrating it and staring at it ever since, but he never thought it was perfect.

You will never think your books are perfect, either...and you've got to learn how to live with that. You've got to set real editing standards for your book. Otherwise, your words will never make it to my Kindle.

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