Monday, April 04, 2011

Those last two inches -- or when do you stop?

MBA types talk about "the 80/20 rule" (you get 80% of the results with 20% of the work), and "diminishing returns" -- those last hours or, depending upon how obsessive you are, days or weeks you spend polishing and perfecting a project. From a business point of view, those usually aren't worth making: they don't bring in any more money than turning in the project without them would.

But for an artist, it's different. It's really hard to know when to do that last polishing and how long to do it. I'm really curious to know if other people have rules about that. I used to polish EVERYTHING to perfection, and now I'm realizing, especially with client work, that if the client isn't going to pay me for that time, and doesn't care anyway, that it's simply not worth it. I force myself to stop when it's good enough....most of the time.

Sometimes, I just fall in love with the project and keep working and perfecting until my hourly rate has dropped to -- well, we won't go into that. But increasingly, these days, good enough is good enough.

With my own writing, it's a lot harder to stop, let go, decide, finish --whatever you want to call it. The rule I used to go by is when I'm not definitely making it better but am just making it DIFFERENT, it's time to stop. But now I'm trying to stop sooner than that -- when I'm proud of it, and it still feels fresh (as opposed to when I can't stand to look at the damn thing one more time).

A short piece is done if:
*it says everything I wanted it to say
* everything in it interests ME
*I can read it out loud without my voice faltering or my insides quailing and wincing
* every word is the best I can make it

For novels, though, it's different. A first draft gets only the first....a second or third draft only the second; and unless there's a pretty good chance of the book being published, I don't think it's worth getting it to the "every word" level. Better to spend the time moving on to something else -- for artistic/creative AND financial reasons! WEll, most of the time. That's what makes it hard--I never really know.

Do you?


Anna Alter said...

I like the rule about making the piece different as opposed to better, a good distinction. For me I think when I get to the point where I can't tell if the work is getting better anymore, thats when I need to step away and take a break if there is time for that. Or with paintings, just work on something else until I can come back with a fresh eye.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks for this post. I just went through the same thing this week, ironically, using all of those steps. When I got to the point where I saw I was just changing words and moving text around because it might sound better, I knew it was time to leave it alone.

Mathilda Wheeler said...

I wish I understood your reference to novel writing, because that's where the "when do I stop?" question hits the hardest -- sometimes just being different is more sell-able, even if it isn't necessarily better. Anyway, my agony is that when I edit, I tend to rewrite enough that I cause different problems. When I get frustrated enough, I ask: am I killing the spirit/energy of the piece by working it to death? And if so, I go back to an earlier version (after a break) and try to be objective. It's so hard to stop, especially with a piece I've spent years on. I'm trying to get better at that advice of yours to just let it go. Thanks!