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Monday, May 19, 2008

When to stop editing

What Does this photo have to do with when to stop editing? Read on...

This is a photo that I took with my cell phone. This is the third attempt to get something because the light was bad and it was a cell phone. As you can tell--still not perfectly focused or centered, although the best of the bunch. I stopped after this attempt. Why?

Because after a certain point it's not worth the time to repeat and tweak a simple photo taken by a cell phone. Deciding when to stop editing can be the same decision process. When is it no longer worth the time or effort? How much importance does the creative piece possess? A poem may require more going over than a short story and a short story more than a novel. Or perhaps not.

Editing is necessary, essential, critical. But after several go-throughs far too often we can get caught in endless editing. A tweak here a tiny change there and at best we are creating a minor improvement. At worst, all the energy and freshness gets stripped out of the work.

So take a pause and ask, "How many times have I gone over this? Am I improving or only changing? Does this piece need another go-round or not?"

When do you stop editing? Never? Or do you have a fixed number of editing attempts?

11 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

When is enough enough? Whenever I hear this I'm reminded of one of the most interesting characters in Camus's novel The Plague: Grand, a low-level clerk with a passion for writing who has been working on the same opening sentence for years, unwilling to move on until he is convinced his first sentence is perfect.

We don't live in a perfect world so why is we strive for perfection all the time? All that can possibly lead to is disappointment. I sat down once and don't ask me how I did my sums but I worked out that I'd spent a whole day of my life on the first sentence to my first novel and, do you know something, I've never been happy with it but it works. It says what needs to be said and sets the reader up for the next sentence. The day I was supposed to be doing the final proof-read I was still changing words. Thank God it's in print now and I can't get to it any more.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Jim, your comment gave me a chuckle. Yeah, what's up with us people? Is it also something about being creative? That there is an infinite amount of ways to change something and we creative types can think of every one?

I'm asking because your comment reminded me of when I was a film editor--and the film is done and sold and broadcast--and I still wanted to tweak one more shot! Just this one...

Jim Murdoch said...

I think it's more common in creative people obviously but I knew an engineer once who would spend hours polishing a bit of metal so that it was a perfect fit. I don't think there are many of his ilk left; they're all just fitters, whup out the old part and bung in a new one – time = money.

I have to say this perfectionism affects all aspects of my life and it's a pain because I'm never truly happy with anything I do. I accept that other people will be but that doesn't really help. I wonder what I'd do if I did write the perfect whatever? Quit while I'm ahead probably.

Conda V. Douglas said...

If I wrote a perfect...I think I'd explode or vanish or...hm, story idea here...

Jim Murdoch said...

You're welcome to it. I have another thought, that if you edit away and edit away you'll finally find the one truth that you were really trying to say that all the other words in your story obscured. I can pretty much boil down each of my novels to a single sentence.

Swubird said...

Conda:

Wise words indeed.

I have never taken a good foto with my camera. Never.

On the writing issue: I am a person who edits and edits and edits. In fact, I've been known to edit my story to the point that there's no story left. You are absolutely right. The trick is to now when to quit. Isn't it the same with everything we do in life?

HAve a nice day.

Conda V. Douglas said...

You too have wise words, Swu--the secret IS knowing when to stop. Happily, I do believe we writers get a sense of over-editing after we've produced enough pieces. And after we've over-edited a few times.

Kathy McIntosh said...

My problem is the opposite. Once I put those words down, I think they're "good enough." It's trying to raise them up another notch, to let go of them and try with others, that I find painful.
I guess our personalities come through on everything, even our writing. Because I'd rather stop with the one I'm on and find a new one than toy with the same old piece.
And I'm NOT advocating for that...just stating a difference.

Dave King said...

This is so true, and true of all the arts, I believe. When to stop working on a painting - if it's a watercolour that's pretty soon or it goes muddy, but fiddling too much with any creation you find you are getting further and further from the original vision. It's one of my great weaknesses. I never finish a poem, as someone once remarked, I just abandon it. And I don't think it has anything to do with the desire for perfection: it is more a re-evaluation - which is why it takes you further from your goal.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Hey Kathy--yes, I can see how that would be a problem as well! I tend toward the over-edit usually--although trying to "turn over the page" and start fresh as you discussed in your Well Placed Words sure is difficult!

Conda V. Douglas said...

Hi Dave.

Abandon it! Uh-huh, true of all us artists, no matter what the medium. My father didn't like working in oils because he would scrape the oil off and start again...and again...and again...