I confess: my e-mails are always typo-free. Occasionally I omit capitalization when I'm in an e.e. cummings mood, but otherwise I never send a message with a spelling or punctuation mistake. Am I boasting about grammatical perfection? No. On the contrary, I'm highlighting a symptom of an "illness" that has derailed many potentially great pieces of writing: Death by Revision.
Revision is key to good writing. Editors are turned off by sloppy syntax or misplaced modifiers. Honing your work until it's the best it can be for your chosen market is the mark of a good writer. Death by revision, on the other hand, is the editing that dooms a twentieth draft of a manuscript to a life of inertia on your desk. The novel you've been writing for fifteen years because it's "not quite done", or the 500-word article that collects dust between frenzied proof-reading sessions are classic by-products of compulsive revising. Excessive revision paralyzes your writing.
Not only does over-revising keep you from finishing anything, it can also rob a piece of its freshness. Revising a piece to death is like overcooking a piece of meat until its flavor becomes reminiscent of shoe leather. Particularly with humor writing, over-revising drains the life and fun out of your words.
Sound familiar? You may be saying "Yes, but what can I do?" Here are some strategies I've found to break the "Death by Revision" cycle and get some writing in the mail!
1. Just write. This is cliched, but for the excessive reviser it is a critical first step. Write without revising until you are done. As I write this piece, I'm not letting myself go back to the first paragraph to fiddle with it. Complete a whole rough draft before you start picking your work apart.
2. Give yourself incentives to reward "free writing". When I complete a whole draft of an article or story in one sitting, I let myself play my beloved Spider Solitaire on the computer. If I'm really pleased with my progress I give myself candy (preferably chocolate!) when I've finished. Incentives work for children; they can help you achieve your writing goals as well.
3. Enter contests. This is one of the most effective ways I've found to break the "Death by Revision" cycle. Contests have firm deadlines. You may not be able to write your magnum opus by next week, but if you discipline yourself (and keep some M&Ms away from the computer) you can probably complete a poem or essay.
4. Don't be afraid to write the way you speak. I spend hours tweaking and revising to get the right "literary" sound to a piece, only to end up throwing it away in despair when my poetry doesn't sound like Gerard Manley Hopkins or my humorous prose like Dave Barry. I'm not either of those writers, so why do I think my writing should sound like theirs? Recently I had a great idea, wrote it down in under an hour, and e-mailed it out. Not only did it get accepted in two days, my husband even said, "Hey, this is pretty funny!" which from him is akin to having the London Philharmonic play the Hallelujah Chorus in your living room. I went with my own voice, didn't revise beyond responsible proofreading, and made a sale.
5. Join a writers' group or get a writer buddy. Accountability is key to getting past excessive revision. If every other Thursday you need to have something to present to your colleagues, you are forced to get past nitpicking and make real progress.
6. Set and record your writing goals. Over a year ago I read a tip in The Writing Parent e-zine that suggested making a monthly calendar with your writing goals. The piece encouraged recording what you actually wrote each day to show your progress. I go one step further and put in any appointments or meetings I have that I know will preclude me from getting much written on a given day so I don't beat myself up over missed writing days. The calendar system works well because it graphically reveals when a piece is getting bogged in excessive revision. If something appears on your calendar month after month after month, you probably need to prioritize it or retire it.
7. Query, query, query. Nothing gets you past your fifteenth draft like a letter from an editor expressing interest in seeing the proffered piece. By querying you set a possible deadline for yourself, and open the door to a potential sale.
8. Follow the muse. The initial rush of inspiration can often push you past the compulsive need to revise. Sometimes taking a break from another project to dash off a quick article revives your enthusiasm for longer projects you are working on. If you have a good idea, get it on paper (or computer screen) immediately. If you've just thought of the next Great American Novel, write a detailed synopsis. An article can probably be written in one sitting, with notes added at the end for any points that need further research. Get your wonderful idea down, let it rest a day, then go back and check your p's and q's.
Am I completely cured of death by revision? No. My chapter book is "almost done", my young adult novel waits at fifteen typed pages and I have story ideas wallowing in the notes phase. However, by using these strategies I have been able to make the most of my limited writing time and get some things published.
Now I can go back and start rearranging my sentences before Blues Clues ends and my three year old comes looking for me. Then I'm going to give myself a cookie!
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