Sorting the good from the bad

As I struggle through yet another revision of my major writing projects, I wonder if they’ll ever be finished, if they’ll be any good if they are, and when I’ll get to follow up on the other writing ideas that I’ve put aside until the current projects are finished. Sometimes I imagine running through the remaining revisions in great burst of energy that finally produces something ready for people to see; other times I wish an editor would come along and fix it all up for me. Yet I’ve always considered that I’d rather be known for writing a small number of good books than for churning out a large number of mediocre ones. There’s so much stuff to read, watch, and so on, so who needs mediocre stuff? So I assure myself that I’m taking the time to get it right.

On the other hand, working away at it forever is no good either. As I chip away at what I hope are the final stages of a writing project that I’ve been working on over the past year, I feel I’m getting diminishing returns out of the time that I put into it. The work is surely imperfect, but it’s getting harder and harder to find ways of improving it. At some point I have to declare that it’s as good as it’s going to get so that I can move on to something else.

I’m reminded of some advice I read when I began writing scientific papers: there are a lot of good papers in journals but lot of perfect papers in drawers, meaning that waiting for a paper to be “perfect” before submitting is likely to result in never submitting it at all. The challenge is to know whether the paper makes a contribution to science good enough for a journal to publish it and scientists to get something out of reading it.

I suppose the same is true of writing fiction. In the foreword to the edition of The Lord of the Rings that I have owned since I was a teenager, Tolkien writes that he sees numerous imperfections in the story—yet I must have read the books fifteen times or more without complaint. Tolkien himself is known for only those few books, based on a lifetime of imagining Middle-Earth. I just hope such admissions don’t make me complacent.

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