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Stop Writing Now

When a writer approaches me for a critique, there is always this no-man’s-land between what they have finished at that moment, and what they want to have finished by the time I look at their work. Quite frequently a writer will ask for a period of time, three weeks, say, to clean things up a little, or two months, to write the rest of what they have in mind. After that they will send me their work, what do I think of that? I tell them that if they want my honest opinion, it’s to stop writing now.

I know you think I’m just trying to close the deal. ABC, Always Be Closing. But it’s deeper than that. It has to do with the nature of drafts, and the nature of asking for help. Let’s look at the nature of a draft first. What is a draft of something? Is it 36,000 words that was written in 5 months, and you haven’t touched it in two years? Is it 116,000 words and you have worried over it for nine years? Is it 70,000 words of the most unorganized non-fiction, except that every sentence on its own makes sense?

girl with pencil and head on binderIt is all of these. A draft is a sustained period of writing on a subject until the momentum runs out, whether because the contours of your life shifted or because your inspiration dried up momentarily or because you reached what you think is the end. A draft is finished when you stop working on it.

Writers know this when they pick up the phone to register for a class, or email a developmental editor to inquire about fees and process, or ask around for a writing group that they might join. They’re done, for now. Or they thought they were…but doubt starts to creep in as soon as it turns out that they will actually have to send their work in to someone. And that someone will xerox it (okay, more in the old days) and spread it around to the relevant parties, all of whom will analyze it and do what they are supposed to do as beta readers—tell you what’s wrong with it.

Wait a minute, the writer thinks! I know what’s wrong with it, to some degree. If I fix everything before I take the next step, then the work will be a more faithful representation of itself.

Possibly, a little bit. But I would submit to you that this step is taken more often as an act of self-preservation when a writer realizes how vulnerable the critiquing process will leave them. And that’s its own special kind of problem.

What I tell people, besides stop writing now, is that actually the reverse will occur: when they get an intelligent critique or three to ponder, they will return to the work and it will look better than it originally did. It will exude the tyranny of the first draft—just from its very state of near or partial completion it will have gained an authority that will be hard to shake.

By way of conclusion to this topic, two quick conversations I had today. One was with a friend who purposely reached out because he needed help. That’s the point of that story; I praise the courage to do that and I pray I am able to do the same when the situation calls for it. The second conversation was with an old student/new client, who broke it down quite succinctly: “I had reached the point where it was going to be less productive to go it on my own.” Her draft was finished, and she knew it. She was actually happy when I told her to stop writing now.

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