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Obsessive Compulsive Editing Disorder (And How to Fight It)

I’ve been writing the same book for ten years. Well, OK. I wrote it once, and since then I’ve been continuously rewriting it. Now there are those who write a passage and it’s beautiful, and they never have to edit. I’m not one of those. I’ve been known to have over a dozen drafts to get words exactly where I want them. However, ten years is a long time for one book, even for me. There was something else going on than simple editing, and it’s that something else that I want to write about. It’s called fear.

I finished a presentable draft of my WIP in 2001, and sent queries out to four big name agents. Two asked for sample chapters–I danced around my room for a few weeks in anticipation. All of them passed on it. None gave a clear indication why; the best I got was that it just “didn’t grab” them as much as they’d thought. Now in academic publishing (my background) when you send a piece out for review, you get back concrete, if cranky, comments that range from suggestions on exactly what research is missing to which parts of the article were unconvincing. The agent reaction to my fiction submission was minimal and vague; this opened the door to self-doubt. Why hadn’t it grabbed them? Was my work as good as it needed to be?

So, this is where I made the big mistake and listened to those doubts, and not to all the available advice on how to find an agent, which would have had me simply send out more queries. I listened to those doubts because they led me back into familiar, almost comforting, territory—editing. It was so much less scary to sit with my pages than to send them out into the world. So I sat down and edited the heck out of it, again, until I had bright, shiny, completed manuscript version 2. Then I sent out a few more queries, received a few more rejections, and sat down for another rewrite.

Clearly, I had developed an obsessive compulsive editing disorder. Sending out queries and sample chapters potentially placed the book outside of my control. The editing was a coping strategy; it brought the work back under my thumb.

I’m now trying to fix my ‘disorder,’ not my work. This requires learning healthier strategies for dealing with the uncertainties of being an unpublished writer. Years ago, when I was struggling to finish a project, an advisor told me a hard and elusive truth: “There are two kinds of written works–perfect ones and finished ones. The latter are better.”  He was right.  The bottom line is that I have to learn to let go.

So, I’m trying two strategies to shortcircuit the compulsion.

First, I’ve asked several writer friends for their reaction to the latest version of the project. What they tell me will at least give me a barometer as to its readiness, and some concrete input that will hopefully defuse the unsettling vague silence of agent submission rejections.

Second, I’m going to try to keep a more steady flow of outgoing queries (at least one a day), so that when a rejection rolls in (and it will) other queries will still be pending. That means there will still be hope remaining–enough, perhaps, to let me leave that red pen on the table.

Any other compulsive self-editors out there? What are your strategies for beating the fear?

Photo Courtesy of Innadril at DeviantArt

About Jeanne Kisacky [1]

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She is the author of the recently published book, Rise of the Modern Hospital: An Architectural History of Health and Healing, 1870-1940 [2]. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.