Monday, September 9, 2013

Down to the Last Letter

Post by Jenny

I’m not a huge crossword puzzler, but I do like to work the one in the Sunday paper. To be honest, it might—depending on how hard it is and how much time I have—take me until the next Sunday to complete it, but I always try give it a good effort.

I struggled with last Sunday’s puzzle. I knew it had a tricky gimmick, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then—aha!—a breakthrough, and before too long, I was almost finished, save for one last letter. I tried all 26 options, but whatever sort of made sense across didn’t make sense down, and vice versa. I checked the surrounding words for errors and didn’t find anything. So I left the paper on the kitchen table for a day and a half, hoping for another aha! moment. Nothing doing. (Maybe it’s one per puzzle.)

I still refused to turn the page and look at the answer. After a while longer, it got ridiculous. I had filled in 376 out of the 377 boxes (yes, I counted) for a completion rate of 99.734748 percent. But it wasn’t good enough. I wanted to get it right to the last letter, and I wanted to do it myself.

In general, I am not a perfectionist. I can turn a blind eye to many things that would drive a true perfectionist up a wall…where that perfectionist would then remove the cobweb I’ve been ignoring for three weeks. But with my writing, I often feel that it is incumbent upon me to get every letter right. Even with a conservative average of four letters a word, that means 360,000 letters in a 90,000 word manuscript. There’s no possible way I’m going to hit 99.734748% accuracy with a number like that—and don’t even get me started on punctuation.

Although this down-to-the-last-letter hang-up means that I can write/revise in endless Escher-like circles with the best of them, it is most definitely hampering my forward progress. So I’m learning to loosen up, to use reasonable effort to make my work as good as it can be and then let it go. At least for a while.  

As for the puzzle…I guessed at the last letter. I was wrong. But at least I was done.

Does writing bring out any pesky perfectionism in you? If so, how do you handle it?


Anonymous said...

Yes, it does sometimes -- to the point where I will delete every single word I wrote. Problematic, definitely. Plus, I find sometimes that the things that spill out with less angst are better writing.

Mike Gear used a great phrase on his writing technique: "vomit and mop." Nothing to mop if you don't vomit.

Have you ever read The Plague by Albert Camus? (spoiler alert) One character, believing he is dying, asks that they burn the novel manuscript he has been working on for years and years. Every single page is covered with rewrites of the same opening sentence because he wanted it to be absolutely perfect.

Michelle Mach said...

I'm always happy when I'm writing with a deadline. Otherwise I fear I would never be done. :)

Deborah Nielsen said...

Writing brings out the editor in me. I find it very difficult to make the editor sit back and relax until the writer is done. The editor wants to sit on the writer's shoulder and pick things apart as the writer's writing. Some days it's an awful battle between the two. :)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Jenny, once again I thought I turned in a spotless manuscript to my editor, and once again she has responded with a multitude of corrections and requests for rewrites.

Perfection is apparently a concept beyond my comprehension. :D

Anonymous said...

I could revise and revise and revise until the cows come home and never publish anything. In baseball, it's three strikes, and you're out so my rule of thumb is three read-throughs, and it's submitted as long as there are no spelling or grammatical errors after the third read-through.

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