What’s done is done … except when it can be undone! by Paul Roberts

A Guest blog from Paul Roberts. Paul is the Director of a successful management consultancy, but also has a passion for writing, with several management textbooks to his name. His first was issued through The Economist, another formed part of Kogan Page’s hugely influential ‘Business Success’ series and is being reproduced as an iPhone application. He has also written for television. Read Paul’s new book, Effective Project Management, published by Kogan Page. 

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I’m always interested in the similarities and differences between the two. Just recently, one of my non-fiction publishers asked me to work on a second edition of a management book first published in 2007.

The world has moved on (or backwards!) since then, and my work of non-fiction should address the changes. It’s a great luxury to be offered the chance to return to a piece of writing in order to make it ‘better’. This is not an option for the writer of fiction who has to make a final judgment when something is complete.

However, this is not true of all artistic endeavours. Films are often remade, sometimes improving on the original, sometimes failing. Famously, George Lucas ‘tinkered’ with the original Star Wars trilogy, adding new scenes and effects. Were the re-releases better? Who had George been seeking to satisfy – his audience or himself?

Starting a piece of writing can be difficult enough. Knowing when to stop is, in my view, even harder. Here are some observations on knowing when to put down your pen.

Listen to your inner voice

Just as your conscience tells you what is inherently right or wrong, so will a writer’s inner voice help them to know what is finished. But one can only develop the inner voice by doing a good deal of writing and reading. Consider the work of others. Did they write too much? What remained unanswered or unclear at the end of the work? And write as much as you can in order to become used to your style, strengths and weaknesses. In this way, you come to know – and be honest with – yourself.

Less is more

It doesn’t always follow that a work will be complete when just a little more has been added. It may mean that perfection is to be achieved by paring away everything which is unnecessary. ‘Deleted scenes’ rarely add much to the finished work. Be not only a writer, but an editor too.

Don’t gild the lily (or polish a turd!)

If something works, it may be reasonable to consider it ‘fit for purpose’. If it is inherently wrong, no amount of polish will make it gleam. Cyril Connolly said, “The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece. No other task is of any consequence.” So, you can stop when you’ve written one! And if you haven’t, use your energy and talent to write something new.

Consider the parts as well as the whole

A work of fiction contains a plot, characters and dialogue. How complete are each of these individual parts? Is the plot robust and truthful? Are the characters authentic and fully formed? Could you draw them? Do you know what they would say in any of a range of situations? Do they speak with their own voice, not yours?

When each component part is complete, assure yourself that they work together.

Listen to your readers

Crucially, be prepared and humble enough to listen to the very people who are well placed to judge when something is complete: your readers. Release your work into the world and listen to what it says. Choose critics you trust – other writers, perhaps, certainly people who read a great deal. Don’t ask them for solutions to the challenges they raise; that’s your job. But do ask them to be honest. No writer ever improved by praise alone!

A published story may be a different story

Whether or not you accept the observations of a publisher is something only you, the writer, can decide. Their perspective on what constitutes a perfect work may be very different to your own. You may wish for the last chapter to be the most important and engaging; a publisher may require it to be the first.

Initially, with the possible prospect of publication, you may have no difficulty accommodating their requirements. Your readers may not be concerned by the compromises you made in order to see your work published, but will you? Is the end product, your own vision of perfection, or someone else’s? It is only writers of non-fiction who are offered a chance to re-tell their story.

There, I think I’m finished.

No, hang on a second…

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  • So much of this struck a chord with me – I’m a compulsive fiddler, capable of staring at a single sentence for a ridiculous amount of time to see if it needs further editing. It’s such a relief to hear that sometimes, good enough really,is good enough.

  • Trevor Campbell

    I agree, fiddling is my Achilles heal, I waste so much time looking at a sentence or paragraph that I eventually get annoyed and decide to take a break. With the above in mind I will attempt to overcome this and put more pen to paper.

  • Freda People

    I am engaged in a battle to reduce word count. When it come to the snipping up clumsy sentences aspect of it, I find myself writing in new stuff just after I’ve trimmed out other stuff. Fatal!

    Good points made above. Cheers