Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

17. Writing for Excellence

To continue with my ruminations on writing and how will I make manifest my purpose in 2021, I offer this post: after all, my Purpose is to be the best version of myself I can be, to utilize my Signature Strengths and put myself in moments of flow, and perhaps achieve momentary happiness, and in the bargain maybe make a difference in something bigger than myself. (Phew, that was quite a sentence. WordPress Editor will have a big red flag for that one.)

Oh, did I mention, to entertain, possibly to educate?

In the industrial world, which apparently includes software and ‘high tech’, the quality gurus like to confuse the troops with competing aphorisms: 

  • quality is meeting customers’ expectations (which is pretty sound advice if you know what the customers’ expectations are, and that is especially difficult if the customer doesn’t know himself.)
  • quality is exceeding customers’ expectations (which I guess is a step up on the first one but suffers from the same uncertainty).

Or how ‘bout this one: don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. Absolutely. How many of us get mired in design detail seeking perfection (or even excellence) and never make deadlines, or even produce anything at all? And seriously distressed into the bargain. But you know, the devil is in the details. And there’s that damn word ‘good’ again. What is good? Is it good enough? Good enough is hardly excellence.

Where is the limit in the Pursuit of Excellence?

So when it comes to excellence in writing, what is the standard? In my experience, excellent writers are as different as chalk and cheese, spare Hemingway and loquacious Wilkie Collins. (Personally I’m not much for Ernest but admire Wilkie.) I think most writers just write for themselves, write for writing’s sake, but really, deep down, they want recognition, or perhaps more accurately, approval. Politicians may be content with mere recognition but authors surely seek something more. (It’s a well established view in political science that many voters casting their ballots check off the box beside the name they recognize, but otherwise know nothing else about him or her, hence the cynical expression: ‘I don’t care what sort of reputation I have so long as I have one’.)

But I digress, we’re not talking about politicians here, we’re talking about writers. Do writers write for reputation, or recognition?, for awards [for excellence] or remuneration? I guess if they want to make money, recognition is pretty handy. But if you worry about what the reader will think then we’re back to that bothersome thing called excellence, or even merely ‘good’. 

I am my own worst critic. I suppose anyone in the creative arts is self-critical. We may create for ourselves, but we know who the icons are. (These days though I’m not at all sure who the ‘good writers’ are – when does a good writer become an icon? When they’re dead? When they have the good sense to retire at the top of their game?) And we certainly know (most times) who our parents are: We may not aspire for iconic status but we sure want Parental Approval. Will we measure up?

So we edit. We revise. We rework. We trash and start over. We strive. We fret.

There are apocryphal stories of writers who revise their manuscripts 20 times, or even for 20 years. There are stories of writers, famous writers, who punch out 50,000 words in their latest opus and then decide it’s crap and trash it. More grounded writers try to limit their drafts to 4, and then surrender it to an impartial, objective editor, and cringe. There’s even a recent, well-regarded, book on writing called Draft No. 4.

(I’ve been meaning to buy a copy of that for ages. I tell myself I’ll download the e-edition but somehow that just doesn’t seem right; on the other hand the hard-cover print edition is expensive. What to do? What to do?)

I have adopted the 4 drafts standard: first draft to get the whole story down, knowing full well many revisions and edits are yet to come. Second draft is to get the structure and logic correct, and perhaps some formatting adjustments, with little rewrites here and there as they occur to you – don’t want to lose that little gem of an idea or description you just thought of. The 3rddraft is crucial, that’s where the detail and polish comes in. But be careful that the 3rddraft doesn’t become a run-away train, or a stuck one, the endless revisions, the enemy of the good, the self-doubt. And this is the time for staring the standard of excellence in the eye. 4thdraft is for line editing – typos, and punctuation and a little spit and polish here and there – and you’re done!. If you have a major publishing house backing you you only have to worry about the editor’s feedback, and leave the line editing to the minions. If you’re self-published you hope your volunteer editor will be generous. In either case you likely face more drafts. It’s not clear to me whether John McPhee was being completely candid about Draft No. 4, except perhaps for journal articles. (And since you asked, this blog post has had six revisions.)

I admit to getting stuck on excellence; or worse, concern that my standard of excellence, or merely my standard of good, is going to meet general approval of my readers. Or is it junk? To some of my more discerning readers, perhaps it is. (Does that mean my approving readers are less discerning?) Should I worry about the hi brows and try yet another rewrite?, or should I say, good enough, and give my fans a chance to read it? I doubt, I struggle, I want to give up.

And then out of the ether comes a surprising and unbidden email congratulating me on my last book, or blog post, complimenting me on being ‘a good writer’ and to ‘keep writing’.

Many people tell me they are eager to get their hands on my current opus, The Treasure of Stella Bay. (This is gratifying of course but in the meantime I’d be happier if they would put their hands on my last few opi and help me pay some of my bills.) They like the premise, they think my story will be ‘pretty good’. I live in dread that it will be a hopeless pile of juvenile vanity. 

I review my manuscript and think, it’s a pretty good story (ah, there we go again, ‘pretty good’). I read a chapter and then another one and think, nice rhythm, and pacing, and imagery. I read another and I think, thud. And another, tangent. And then I rationalize that the chapter provides necessary information for the overall story; or builds characters, or helps with setting and context. I remind myself that this novel is not supposed to be drama with a tight arc. Neither is it an allegorical work of intellectual prowess worthy of a Governor-General Award for fiction. It’s a series of charming vignettes that all sort of come together at the end.

I remind myself this is my Tom Sawyer, a much loved story of a boy growing up in 1860s Hannibal Missouri. Only this is about a boy growing up in Stella Ontario in the 1960s. There I go again, comparing myself to a famous superstar, in this case the redoubtable Samuel Clemens. But then I tell myself, not everyone thought Tom Sawyer was much either, and Clemens even hid behind a pseudonym.

So I put excellence aside, tell myself this is a good story that people will enjoy reading. Not everyone has to like it. 

I return to the task of making the 3rddraft as good as I can make it. Maybe it will be good enough.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

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2 thoughts on “17. Writing for Excellence”

  1. David Bradley

    You insert humour into your writing like you are creating a piece of marquetry – thank you. This is another very honest but thoughtful piece but then all of your stuff is. I’m not sure that you need to redraft so many times in your pursuit of excellence. You are a good writer in my opinion. I always want to read on, turn the page and often re-read. When you are doing your third draft do you read on because you are enjoying what you have written or are you doing it because you think that is what is required as an author. I know more about playwrights and some of them just write and only redraft in rehearsal. Of course plays are written to be performed and novels are written to be read – difficult to predict what picture is formed in the reader’s mind, isn’t it? Trust yourself – if you can re-read as often as you indicate then that’s testament to the quality of the writing.

    1. My stuff reads so well because I edit, refine, redo, rework and finally release it. And then I find errors and awkward sentences. arghh. But I take your point and your compliments. Most times I do enjoy my own work and I’m actually eager to put it out there for others to enjoy too, and see how clever I am! Still I keep finding ways to ‘improve’ the article and think of new lines to insert but I am aware that you can over-polish a diamond. The essence of the article is in the first draft and maybe it is ‘good enough’… but not to me.

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