This post has given me a lot of trouble. Like the previous two, every time I revised and edited it until I thought it was good enough, then left it for a while to cool down, when I came back to it again, I found that it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough at all.
Many times, in the course of revising and editing and polishing a story of any length — usually long — I come to a passage which seems to be not quite right, so I try to fix it, and move on, knowing I can come back to it later. It may be a word, a phrase, a sentence or two, a paragraph or two, a page or more. When I come back for another read-through, I’ll be able to see my fix more objectively. Some of the problems have been fixed, but sometimes I find more rough spots, and try to fix them. Each read-through, for text silently and aloud, for story, and for performance, reveals different problems. Each time through it gets better, and fewer problems have to be left for later. But when I get to my final polish, when I read aloud for performance, if there are any rough spots left, anything which makes me unsatisfied or uncomfortable, I have to take whatever time is necessary to fix it right then. I can’t let it be just “good enough,” but as close to truly right as I can make it. After each fix I still have to let it cool down again, but I don’t have to read the whole story, just those trouble spots. And try again if they’re still a problem.
If I don’t fix these problems, if I don’t enjoy reading it again this time, despite however many times I’ve read it before, anyone else reading my story will feel the roughness, though they may not know what is causing it, and they won’t enjoy the story as much as they should.
I’ve read passages that just weren’t right in other books, fiction and non-fiction. One time it seemed to me that the final page, which was supposed to have hammered in the point of the whole book, was actually a nonsequiter. I went back a few pages and read it again, to see if I had missed something crucial. But I hadn’t, the last page made no sense, spoiling an otherwise good book and argument. Why was it left that way?
Possibly because the writer — and almost certainly the copy editor, who should have caught it — felt that, at the moment, it was “pretty much okay.” It would take a lot of work to fix, and maybe the author thought he’d come back to it, but he never did, and it had to get out the door. There was nothing wrong with it when I read it just as text. The words, the grammar, the punctuation, the phrasing, the syntax, all were fine. But when I read it for meaning within the context of the rest of the book, it was totally wrong. I could not figure out the point he was trying to make. And I don’t remember what the book was about, all I remember is that bad last page.
So, when I come on a “good enough” passage in my own work, if it persists into my reading aloud for performance, where it really sticks out, I have to try to figure out why it is only “good enough.” I can’t just pass it over. I must make it as good as I possibly can. Maybe my standards are too high.
One time I spent over two hours working on one short paragraph, because no matter how many times I read it, and revised it, and corrected it, it made me feel uncomfortable, and made me want to stop reading. It took rephrasing, reordering, different words and punctuation, tightening, expanding, and on and on. And a lot of time pacing the floor. But at last I made it right, or at least as right as I was able. And then it was a pleasure to read, instead of a chore. All that time spent was worth it. And my readers will never know which paragraph that was.
For me at least, when I’m writing a story — or a blog post — there is no such thing as “good enough.” Not any more. There’s only “the best I can do.” Only the best is good enough, according to the company motto of a certain toy manufacturer. And as time goes by, my standards get higher, and I get better.