Monday, March 16, 2009

The Cost-Benefit Rule

Over the past couple of weeks, I have posted entries dealing with diminishing returns--either in the writer over-extending his efforts, or in the writer over-using a technique to his detriment by tearing the reader out of the moment. This next posting, on the cost-benefit rule, regards an issue I've struggled with lately.

To set this up, I'm going to use an anecdotal story from this last weekend. Before my choir director left town on a much-deserved vacation, he asked me to lead the worship service at our church. I had help from other praise team members for the second service, but the first service found me solo. I don't know if any of you have had the opportunity to stand before a crowd of people and lead them in music, but the thought is slightly intimidating, the process even more so. What I find so interesting, though, is how the worship leader can spot all of the flaws in the music service while others in the congregation hand out pats on the back like they were suckers at a bankteller's window.

Which causes me to ask: Why fret over things too much? I further wonder whether or not the same is true when it comes to writing. Is there is also a danger in trying to work a story over and over, to get it just right?

I'm starting to believe a writer can read and edit and re-read a piece of work too much. As a result, he can fall into two traps. First, he can overlook the obvious. He knows what's supposed to be on the page. He has seen it probably a hundred times, and because of that he runs the risk that his eyes will inadvertently gloss over a fatal flaw created by the constant changes.

The second danger is that a story will never look acceptable in the writer's eyes. There will always be one thing that needs changing, and sooner or later--probably later--after the sixth or seventh revision, the writer still has the story instead of a publisher. And yet readers can look at that same story and say how good it was, how it captivated their minds and hearts.

What's the issue? Cost vs. Benefit. In management, before implementing any new strategy a manager has to ask two questions. What will it cost? How much will it benefit the company? If the costs outweigh the benefits, then the strategy is DOA.

A writer has to ask the same question, but in a different light. Will the changes really benefit the story? Will the readers actually know what went on behind the scenes? And will the story risk death because of the constant changes--death either in the form of a fatal grammar or spelling error, or death because it never went out the door?

From this, there are a couple of things I have learned. First, a writer needs a patient and meticulous reader at his side, someone who has eyes like a hawk and is willing to read his story one last time prior to submitting it. There are times when the writer's best efforts at proofing a story just won't be enough. Secondly, there has to come a time when a story just has to go out into the world. Like turning loose of our children, we need to send our stories out and let them go, see what they can do.

Of course, learning is one thing; doing is quite another. I have really got to learn to let go.


  1. Interesting post.

    Funny, I was thinking I had edited the soul out of BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT; after all, I've been hacking at it for 2.5 years. But after letting it sit, then sending it to three trusty beta readers and getting their responses, I've realized that the soul is there. Absolutely. And part of the problem of editing is not only knowing when revision has gone too far, but when it hasn't gone far enough.

    One of my teachers said when you start revising and editing to a prior verison, then you have eached the end.

    Another teacher said whenever you doubt whether you've over-edited, throw it in a drawer and come back to it after working on another project.

    Oh who knows? Maybe editing is the writer's equivalent of head-in-sand?

    I do know I overedit my poetry. Sigh.

    Peace, Linda

  2. Maybe editing is the writer's equivalent of head-in-sand?

    Maybe it isn't in all cases, but I think it can be. My problem has been a fear that the story just isn't right, and that people will look at it and say, "That's a piece of [fill in the blank]."

    For some of my stories, I have edited so much they've never seen the light of day. And yet, I have a story that has now seen it's seventh revision; and because of a grueling review it received today by a mutual friend, it will see at least another brush-up before I contemplate the thought of sending it out.

    Like you've mentioned, the problem with editing "... is not only knowing when revision has gone too far, but when it hasn't gone far enough."