When does editing get to be too much?
Or, to put it another way, when is a sentence (paragraph/chapter) “done”?
I’m probably not alone when I say that I could nit-pick my writing all day. Tweak this sentence, change that word, take out a comma in the morning and then put it back in the afternoon…
Today I managed to slip away to work on my novel, and instead of going to the very next scene I wanted to work on, I did a “quick review” of the previous scene. You know, I tweaked a sentence. Changed a word. Pushed some commas about.
I did manage to start working on the next scene (finally) but I began to wonder what difference I had really made in the passage. Did I “polish” it? Improve it in any way? I’m not being facetious here; I really don’t know. But I’m suspecting that perhaps not.
Not long ago, I came upon a piece of writing I did years ago, and found I really liked it. I wouldn’t change a word. But chances are, I was moving around commas right until the last second I sent it off to my client.
I think this obsessive editing has more to do with self-doubt than actually trying to improve a piece. I mean yes, the intention is to improve it, of course. But the inability to see that it’s already done is very much a function of our insecurities and anxieties. We cannot objectively look at a piece and judge its value.
That’s why it’s so important to let it sit for a while and come back to it later. It’s not that “time” makes us objective, it’s that we forget what we wrote. It’s no longer in our heads, so it’s no longer a part of us but a thing standing on its own that we can say yea or nay to.
To put it another way: it’s sort of like that game, where you tap out a song using just your fingers on the table. You know what the song is, but when someone tries to guess, they very rarely get it right. It’s maddening, isn’t it? It is so obvious what the song is!
Here I am. Duh duh. Dada da da Rock you like a hurricane…!
Writing can be like that too. You have an idea and you think you’ve explained it. It is so obvious what the idea is – what the tune is – because that idea is still in your head. The idea needs to be removed from your head so that you can see the parts you didn’t explain well enough, the parts of the tune that are still missing. That’s what the time part is all about.
Sometimes you come back and you find the tune really is obvious, and you were fretting for nothing.
Other times it takes someone else to tell you that part of the tune doesn’t make sense. That’s what editors are for, and trusted readers.
But I’d like to get the tune down as much as possible before that point. That’s why we do successive drafts I suppose.
So I’m afraid I can’t really answer the question, when does editing get to be too much. But if you suspect you’re just mucking about for no good reason, it might be time to lock that passage in a dark drawer for a few weeks and come back to it later.
Personally, I’m instituting a “no reading” rule again, like I did for the first draft. Modified, of course, since I need to re-read passages while I’m working on them. But once I “finished” editing a scene for the second draft, I’m dropping it until the third draft rewrite.
Besides, whatever is wrong now, will still be wrong then.
P.S. – I think I should have removed that last comma…