Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Much Rewriting is Enough?

Wednesday’s Writing on Writing

Among the many significant points Christian Writers Guild Writing for the Soul conference keynoter Angela Elwell Hunt (left) made at our meeting in 2005 was this: “Perfection is elusive; polished is certainly within reach.”

One of the questions that arose in CWG Managing Editor Andy Scheer’s (left) and my Thick-skinned Critiques writing workshop was, “How do you know when you’re finished editing, re-writing, and polishing?”

That varies for every writer, but the operative question is when do you quit making a piece of writing better and succeed only in making it different?

The answer — that intuitive knowledge — comes with experience.

When I was a child and it was my turn to clear the dinner table and wipe it down, my mother would say, “You’re not cleaning it. You’re just rearranging the dirt.”

I watch for that when I work on my own writing. Job one is to get the first draft down, that hunk of meat that now needs to be carved, that version I wouldn’t show anyone.

I begin each writing day by editing what I wrote the day before. That serves as a springboard to launch me into the day’s writing. Then when I have finished the entire manuscript, I go through it again for a final polish.

I know many people write and re-write chapters and sometimes entire manuscripts six, ten, a dozen or more times. If that’s what they need to make it the best they can make it, more power to them. I have learned that for me, writing one day, editing the next, and polishing when the
whole thing is done, works best. Past that, I’m not making it better; I’m making it only different.

If I have any niggling doubts about the product, some conviction that I can still make it better, I work on it until I’m satisfied. I never want to turn in the second-to-last version and count on my editor to salvage something I know isn’t up to snuff.

I still need an editor, of course. Everyone does. But I am committed to make the writing the best I can do before submitting. As a former publisher and editor, I enjoy surprising my publishers with low-maintenance manuscripts. The thing I most long to hear from an editor is, “This manuscript came in really clean and won’t take much work.”

Whatever it takes to send in your best work, that’s what you want to strive for.

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