Monday, January 29, 2018

Mastery is in the Details. Except When It Isn’t

I’m not much for proofreading, not a particularly precise person. I call my painting style “stabby art,” where I mostly just blot the canvass with color until I get something sort of in the right place. So when I was in the position of proofreading someone’s short story, it was sort of odd for me from the jump.

In this context, I restricted myself to proofreading only. No content or line editing. No developmental. Just fixing the black and white mistakes of grammar and punctuation. It was obviously easier than anticipated, and I realized a part of my problem in the past was not separating out revision from copy editing. Focusing on one thing made it easier to catch that one thing. Shocker.

But the short story in question was awful. As someone who preaches that quality of writing isn’t linear, this work in particular surprised me with its juvenile prose and cold, simplistic summation of boring events around whiney and obnoxious characters. It was someone who I knew too, though admittedly not very well. I had all intention of being supportive, instead finding myself highly judgmental.

“Stop being such a shithead,” I told myself as I had to put down the manuscript for the third time in a row.

Truth was, if anyone had a reaction towards my manuscript that I did for his, I would be humiliated. Mortified. It was my worst nightmare.

But the real events that shocked me was not my reaction as much as what occurred when I sent back the changes in the manuscript.

He sent me an email with even more minor fixes… that were completely ineffective.

Out of five lines he wished to alter again, only one of them was an actual typo. The others were strange changes that seemed more like a frustrated writer’s critique of his competition than an honest-to-God opinion.

But here’s what got me. In the short story, one line stood out to me far above others. I don’t know what it was about it, but it noticeably pained me to read it: “Finally the waitress came, and they ordered.”

It was in a series of events that took course over dinner, more of the same summation. In the edits he sent back, he wanted to alter it to, “Finally the waitress came, and they placed their orders.”


I imagine there might be some sort of archaic or pedantic grammar rule here I’m not aware of, sort of like when he changed “There’s cars out there!” to “There are cars out there!” Maybe he just liked the cadence a little better. I can get behind that.

I suppose what shocked me, more than anything else, was that he absolutely insisted on this seemingly irrelevant change when there were so many other issues with the paragraph at hand. In fact, I would say that the duration and over explanation of the description was the biggest issue, and making the sentence longer and more spelt-out was adding to the fire.

It's common to focus on the details when trying to fix something. It's common for others to say it's irrelevant. I remember when I was creating a lassoing cowgirl and I couldn’t figure out where she would be distributing her weight. When I made a comment to my coworker who was self-proclaimed as a non-creative person, she became dismissive and indignant I would ever care. “It doesn’t matter!” she insisted.

Of course it does matter. Subtle details affect the bigger picture and are often the difference between a masterpiece and just something with a good concept. Execution is all about how each tiny decision adds to the whole.

But sometimes people spend way too much time nitpicking and not enough working with the foundation. It’s like how I complain about suggestions of “If you want good dialogue, only use the word said!” You need to make sure your subtext works before you start worrying about the sort of dialogue tag.

Previously I complained to a friend about a manuscript of mine (which he hadn’t read) about how it had no impact on people. They liked it, thought it was well written, but didn’t particularly care. He thought about it a moment and said, “Have you ever considered doing a complete rewrite?”

“I might as well write another book all together.”

I had, and many of my critique partners had, focused on the details, the word choice, the pacing, the clarity, the obvious little fixes here and there, creating a book that made people confident in my ability. That wasn’t the problem. The details weren’t the issue. It was the bigger picture, the concept, the pitch, the emotional stakes and pulling them in earlier on. I knew that I could enhance the experience through fixing smaller errors, altering pacing, adding scenes, but the truth is, sometimes you just have to gut the whole thing instead of worrying so much about polishing.

I often don’t agree with the smaller edits many authors impose on themselves, but especially right before publication. A woman once wrote a blog post about how, at the very last minute, she went through her manuscript and changed a line from, “He went to stand and she shoved him back down,” to “He stood halfway and she shoved him back down.” It was a very odd change, not one with a huge effect, and if I had to pick between the two, the first conveys the intention far better than the second. People are shocked when I say that a second draft isn’t necessarily better than the first, but that’s the truth of things. Sometimes you can be too heavy handed with the red pen and not only make alterations that really don’t do much, but are actually a step backwards.

It’s sort of frustrating, I guess, to see someone spit-shining a car without an engine, but I will admit that I’ve had people accusing me of doing the same thing. My only advice in this matter is to step back and look at the larger issues before worrying about the little details even though it’s true those little details can matter a lot.

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