Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Temptation to Tinker

Recently as I was scouring my books for typos that had slipped through the proofing process, I was confronted with the compulsion to make minor edits as I went along.  It’s the same impulse that threatens to keep me from finishing a book in the first place (and I think this urge to continually try to improve one’s work is shared by all writers.)  Of course any book I write could always be made better, but going back to make endless revisions (before or after publication) is a trap and a snare.  Because I’m never going to get it perfect.

That ideal of perfecting one’s work is not only unattainable, it’s illusory.  What seemed to be the right word to use at one time may in hindsight be improved by replacing it with an even better choice, but if I revisit the same sentence later, I may have yet a ‘better’ idea what word should go there.  With experience I change and (hopefully) grow as a person and as a writer, and that means I see what I’ve written in the past differently.  And I recognize what I would’ve done different.

This is probably why new writers are often advised to set aside their ‘finished’ manuscripts for a time and then come back to revise them later.  And when you’re first learning the craft, that can be really useful (as long as in the interim you’re pushing forward with new work.)

The problem is that you could continue to do that ad infinitum.  So when do you stop looking backwards?  While we’re always learning (and hopefully improving) there comes a point of diminishing returns.  I revised Certain Hypothetical until I was satisfied it was the best I could do at the time – and that it was good enough to offer for public consumption – and then I released it.  Still, with six published books under my belt, I’m sure I could go back and revise it to be even better.  And next year I could probably return to rewrite it to be even stronger.

In fact, I could spend all my time revising the books I’ve already published and never write anything new.  But what would be the good of that?  While I can occasionally learn from revisiting past efforts, most of my improvement comes from the experience of doing something different.  I’d actually stop growing as a writer if I chased that dream of perfection, and all of you who’ve enjoyed the Slowpocalypse and Watchbearers books would be justifiably annoyed if I wasn’t writing new stories.  Especially since you liked the books as they were and probably couldn’t care less if one particular paragraph ended a bit better.  You would think I was wasting my time, and you’d be right.

So while it’s great that with print-on-demand and e-books I can go back and fix typos and correct actual errors, the temptation to make minor edits must be resisted.  (Though admittedly I’ve sometimes succumbed to the urge.)  I have to publish a book when I believe I’ve made it the best I can at the time.  And what was good enough then needs to remain as it is – while I get on with writing new stories and try to make those even better than what I wrote before.

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