Do you believe that “no piece of writing is ever finished … merely abandoned” as I learned early in my writing career? How do you declare victory on something you are writing? When is it complete?
That quote has stuck with me for well over twenty years since I first heard it early in my writing career. It was delivered as a great pronouncement from an English professor on the first day of class. My wise and learned English professor was also a poet, and as such, forced to be pecuniary with words. He told us that if we were to learn anything in his class, that was it. He paused for effect each time he said what was to become an often repeated maxim.
It was not what I was expecting, seated in Introduction to Compositional Writing, I think it was, in a room of forty fresh-faced and naïve college students. I, along with the aspiring writers around me, shifted in our chairs. We were there to tame words and show them who was in charge. We wanted definitive answers, not the suggestion that great writing is a kind of holy grail. We wanted the secrets of good writing splayed out before us. We expected our kindly white-haired English professor to gift us all the tools and tricks of the trade. Mostly, I think, we all wanted assurance he could help us learn to become masters of expression, able to turn our thoughts and sentences into things of beauty and a joy forever.
Instead, we got an important lesson that writing was a skill to be worked on constantly and never to be taken for granted. We learned to respect writers and the writer’s craft with a new seriousness and yes, reverence. We learned that great writing was hard work but enormously satisfying. We learned we could indeed hold meaning, emotion and experience in our grasp and feel the resultant satisfaction it brings.
As proof of his pronouncement, which he made often, our professor shared lots of stories about writers we admired, who admitted that given the chance, they would change entire sections of text that had made them famous and sometimes wealthy. If Hemingway would take a red pen to his short stories, who were we to think our work were any different? In our instructor’s view, a writer didn’t need to be any sort of perfectionist to want to do this. It was natural and to be expected. In the future, things would look differently to us — the secret was taking a piece of writing as far along as we could, then knowing “when it was time” to stop.
Looking back, I’m glad I took that class. Our professor taught us many things — how to imagine a scene with an artist’s eye, hear dialog with a musician’s ear, experience meaning with a poet’s soul, and shape a story like a sculptor. He taught us about the craft of writing, the tools and methods used by the masters, what we were doing well and what not so well. He led us to become better writers. He taught us that the more we write, if we are lucky, the more we grow as a writer, not just improve technically, but really grow. And finally, he taught us about the importance of good editing, taking the time to review, rethink, what to look for, how to tweak and tinker — and when to let go.
In my career in marketing, PR and sales, I’ve written all manner of things, been published many times and received a fair share of compliments. But as I finish each piece, as part of my final review, a little voice asks me what will I think of this piece of writing a year from now. Could it be tweaked some more? Could the language be tighter, the tone more unified, the verbs packed with more action?
How do you “abandon” something you are writing? When do you deem it finished or complete?
© 2012 Anne Doherty Johnson
About the Author
Anne Doherty Johnson is marketing strategist with expertise in growing engagement and revenues for member based organizations. She has over 20 years experience working for membership organizations matched by leadership roles for professional and non-profit associations. She views membership from both sides of the table , having been and still serving as both a professional provider and personal consumer of membership services. Equipped with a keen business sense and public relations savvy, she has created successful marketing campaigns to sell memberships, events, products and services. She has also counseled corporations and individuals on how to maximize memberships in pursuit of their goals. Contact her at http://www.annedohertyjohnson.com.
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