In the last post, Teika discussed the challenge of being trapped in a cycle of editing and redrafting. In this post, I’m going to work through some of the psychological implications of finding yourself in this trap, some of the likeliest causes, and some practical steps that can be taken to break out of it.
1) The lure of perfectionism
Here at the Book Stewards, one of our guiding philosophies for maximizing success is focus on your craft. You can never go wrong with improving your skills, it’s guaranteed to make you a better writer, and it is one of the few aspects of the writing life that is fully within your control. However, there is a potential pitfall for the unwary, captured by the old aphorism “the perfect is the enemy of the good”.
Perfect is an impossible ideal. It’s the core tragedy of all art that the sublime work in our imaginations cannot be flawlessly brought forth into reality, complete in its splendour. A natural impulse when confronted with this human limitation is to despair and sulk and grumble at the fact that our efforts to realize our vision are so disappointing. A healthy response to this is to learn, improve and try harder next time. A less healthy response is to beat yourself up as a failure and demand perfection of yourself and your work.
Another insidious trap is the self-protection that perfectionism subtly offers. If the world is going to judge the story that you deliver, rather than the story that is so much better in your mind’s eye, then delaying the release of an actual finished book until you have polished to the last possible degree is a great way of feeling active without ever actually exposing yourself to the judgemental judgement of judgy readers.
This “fear of exposure” can cause us to hide behind perfectionism as the reason for delaying the release of an actual, finished book. Once you have released your book into the world, readers will know what you are capable of. This can be a major psychological block, as we feel that we are capable of so much more. If chronic, this fear of exposure can lead to…
2) The never-ending story
Not the one with luck dragons and swamps of sadness, marvellous though that is. This is the never-ending story of an ambitious and meticulous writer.
If a novel takes a couple of years to write and a couple of years to edit, you will be four years wiser at the end of the process. You see things you missed in the first crafting of the story. Your insight into character and human frailty is deeper. You could refine it again to accommodate this extra depth. Of course, that could take a couple of years, by which time your skills have developed even more, and now you can see how a change in point of view could illuminate new angles to the story. And so, you start revising again.
This cycle can last a lifetime, constantly polishing and reshaping a novel as life teaches you lessons, your craft improves, and your ambitions for the story swell.
This is another trap of perfectionism: if you aim for the best story possible – the platonic ideal of a novel – you will spend forever trying to attain it. A noble effort towards it is admirable, but insistence on the ideal will guarantee that you never finish. More practical is to aim to deliver the best story you are capable of writing now. Capture the story in your mind within the best novel you can execute with your current skills. Consider it a time capsule of your personal writing journey.
All that extra wisdom, skill and insight you accumulated during the writing process? Pour it into your next story.
3) Books are hard to finish
Even without falling prey to perfectionism, many writers get bogged down in the editing process. Another explanation for this is unreasonable expectations about the amount of work that is needed to finish a book to a professional standard. One way to assess the scale of the challenge is to consider the Pareto principle.
Also known as the 80/20 rule, the Pareto principle was coined centuries ago in relation to economics, but turns out to have wide ranging applications in many parts of life. The basic premise is that there is an unavoidable inequality built into many systems, where the majority (80%) of output comes from a minority (20%) of inputs. The commonest examples are that 80% of a company’s sales come from 20% of customers, or 80% of sales are secured by 20% of its salespeople. The obverse of this is that the remaining 20% of sales require an additional 80% of customers – in other words, if you want to sell all your stock, the last 20% is going to be a long, slow, slog of small sales to a large number of reluctant customers. I promise I’m going somewhere with this rather laborious explanation of an economic principle (the 80% of value is about to arrive in the last 20% of words).
For writing, getting 80% of the way to a finished novel takes only 20% of the total effort. It’s the last 20% of novel creation (editing, revising, redrafting, polishing) that is the long and challenging slog. This is why so many writers fail to complete a final draft. They despair that so much more effort is needed to get to the finish line, when it seemed like they were almost there.
4) Overfamiliarity breeds contempt
Another psychological trap when caught in the labour of editing and revision is overfamiliarity with the story. Very few people can sustain the excitement of the first draft through multiple rounds of revision. It is normal to feel boredom and cynicism about any piece of work after the creative excitement of writing has given way to the pragmatism and critical analysis of revision.
Professionals often talk about sending off their manuscript when they are “sick of it”. That’s actually a good rule of thumb: you’ve done as much as you can tolerate and are ready to let go. Everyone gets sick of a story that they’ve read (and re-read) dozens of times. Concerns about the quality of the draft can be due to over-familiarity rather than genuine flaws. This particular psychological trap can be thought of as “this wood is nothing but a bunch of crappy trees” syndrome.
Some practical solutions
So those are some of the common psychological traps that can inhibit progress during the editing and redrafting process. What can be done to overcome them? What tricks can help future-proof us against falling into the same traps next time?
1) Excellence is good, perfectionism is futile
A guiding principle when approaching your first edit is to remember that your goal is to get your book in front of readers. You should write the best book that you are able to write now, not the best book that you can conceive of in your imagination. Strive for excellence, but don’t use perfectionism as a cover for not releasing anything at all.
You will never truly know what you are capable of until you confront the fear of exposure, and subject your work to the judgement of readers. Courage!
2) Plan ahead
As Teika outlined in the previous post, a plan at the outset can save you innumerable future agonies when it comes to the technical aspects of editing. Similarly, anticipating the psychological challenges of editing can also protect you against demoralization during redrafting.
Start with the knowledge that when you complete your first draft, it will feel like you are 80% of the way to a finished book, but that last 20% of work is going to be a major drain on time and effort. Hard work will get you to the end, but you should recognize from the outset that the editing process is not a quick polish; it is a major undertaking in its own right.
For the pantsters out there, you will likely have to invest significant time in structural edits, because the story that evolves as your characters take charge is likely to have all the messy improvisation expected of a wild ride (unless you’re as skilled a pantster as Zadie Smith, that is). The plotters can “save” the time needed for such structural editing by front-loading it into preparing a detailed framework that keeps their characters’ wilder excesses in check. Either way, the work is going to have to be done – just before or after the first draft is written.
3) Set some deadlines
Deadlines can be useful tools. In the case of editing, it can be helpful to set realistic deadlines for when you should complete certain milestones. This can keep you on track and protect against the risk of being caught in the never-ending story. For example, you could give yourself the same amount of time that it took to write the first draft, to work through the first edit. It can be sobering to confront a doubling in the time to completion, but NaNoWriMo (and similar schemes such as #100daysofwriting) help to illustrate the fact that an outpouring of creative energy can get a first draft written in a surprisingly short amount of time. Editing is always more ponderous. Deadlines help keep you moving and prevent you from wandering out into the swamps of despair.
4) Seek an independent view
It is hard to be objective about a work in progress that has occupied your attention for months or years. Beta readers and professional editors can help remind you of the promise that was so exciting early on, and give a newcomer’s perspective on how successfully you’ve captured the story that was in your imagination within a cage of words. There’s power in an outsider’s validation, and practical benefit to an informed critique. When you feel adrift, other people who are on your side can help get you back on track.
To summarize: writing a book is an epic endeavour, and as with any worthwhile endeavour, making a success of it will require mastery – of the craft and of your own psychology. Arming yourself with knowledge will help immeasurably, as will finding some trusted supporters to help you along on those days when it all feels like too much. Take heart! Many have walked this path before you. You can do it too.