Is writing deathless prose your goal? You know, writing that will out live you and your progeny? Words of wisdom, wit, and feeling that will be quoted down through if not the ages, at least for a century or two? Is that what you’re aiming for, even secretly?
If it is, stop it!
It’s my hunch that it takes at least 100 years for any writing to be judged ‘deathless’ or ‘timeless’ or ‘classic.’ If it’s going to happen to your writing, or mine, it’s unlikely either of us will ever know about it, or care.
I’ve also known more than a few folks who longed to make a career out of writing, who even wrote with some frequency, but would never submit their writing for publication or to contests, or anywhere for fear it wasn’t ‘good enough.’
Deathless prose pursuit is about more than books
Although the idea of deathless prose is most often applied to novels, I’ve seen that same impulse for fame and maybe fortune interfere with all sorts of writing from poetry to tech writing. It gets in the way of folks who want to write good non-fiction as well as those who long to be creative with fiction.
In truth, trying for deathless prose is another form of perfectionism. It’s a way to keep yourself if not from writing at all, finishing and submitting your writing. If you want a career as a writer you’ve got to be willing to write, submit, write, rewrite, submit over and over again.
The famous don’t know
Writers who are famous today don’t yet know how long their writing will last. This is true of your favorite novelist, non-fiction book writer, politician, and article writer. None of them have any clear idea how well known, if it all, their writing will be in a decade, let alone in 100 years or more. And the very few I’ve known aren’t worried about it because they know they have no control in that arena.
The difference between doing your best and trying for deathless prose
There’s a world of difference between doing your best and trying for perfect or even close to perfect. The key I think is in the rewriting. When you find yourself rewriting and rewriting a piece or a portion of a piece over and over again with no end in sight, you’re probably at least unconsciously aiming for a perfection that either doesn’t exist or you wouldn’t recognize if you hit it.
My own rule of thumb is roughly three revisions. Often I don’t need that many because I tend to write what might be called top of the head pieces. No weighty research to do and interpret. No expectations this piece or any other will be read many years from now, although they might be I suppose. A lot of what a talk about might be dubbed ‘how to write’ and that probably won’t change much even when we’ve traded typing for talking our words on to a page. It might not change if reading gives way to what? Video in whatever form we might have in the next century? I hope we don’t lose the written word… but that’s a whole other article or book or…
Technology makes endless, pointless revision possible
When I first began writing the number of revisions were limited by having to manually type and retype everything – that limitation doesn’t exist with the computer. Truth be told I don’t know how many revisions I do. Come to think of it I’m not sure how I’d define revisions. I do know, however, that if I end up in a loop of changing this for that, and that for something else, and the something else for something new until I’m right back (almost) where I’ve started, I’m not rewriting, I’m dithering. So I stop it. Put the piece down, declare it done and send it off.
With some practice, assuming you’re actually submitting pieces, you’ll notice a sense of when you’re finished. Learn to honor that. Occasionally a piece may come back for specific revisions, but not often. If you’re producing regularly it’s unlikely you’re caught in a deathless prose cycle. If your production slows or even ceases, checking yourself out for perfectionism is probably the first step in getting back to productive work.
Does this make sense to you? Give us your opinion in comments please.
Write well and often,