Perhaps that title should be: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or it could be: Why sweat the small stuff? Or, Sweating – the small stuff. That one sounds quite funky. Or, perhaps it could be . . . and that’s my point.
How easy it is to agonise over the syntax or grammar of a sentence. I have to confess to a love of all that tinkering. Part of the beauty of the language is that we have a lavish assortment of ways to express the same thought. I enjoy taking the time to feed every single one of the eighty thousand words in my WIP through the mental thesaurus?
Writing a novel is all about making a series of decisions. Martin Amis made this point in a conference speech about one of Saul Bellow’s books. He includes it in Visiting Mrs Nabokov, but I can’t check exactly what he says as all my books are in boxes at the moment with builders crawling all over the house. As I remember, Amis describes the process a bit like a decision-tree with Bellow starting with big decisions and then working his way steadfastly down to ever smaller ones. The biggest decisions include the overall structure of the plot, who's the main character, the setting, etc. The small decisions include choices of words.
The question I want to ask here is whether it's tempting for those of us somewhere below Saul’s status to jump on the small stuff too early. Am I the only one who goes through manuscripts again and again, polishing and polishing, without having corrected the mega-problems? That way you end up with something akin to a highly polished dustbin lid.
The more you polish, the more you’ve invested of yourself in a piece of writing and, because it is well-written it can be harder to see the problems, and easier to let yourself off. The more you polish, the more difficult it is to make bold changes or even to junk pieces altogether if that is what is really needed.
Is it a form of laziness? In a way, yes; and in a way, no. It's shirking the disagreeable work, but those of us who do this also work long and hard on our prose, attending to each sentence with lapidary care. It's harsh to call us lazy. We're just doing the wrong work. Doing what we feel comfortable with, like the builder doing up a house (an easy image for me at the moment) who rapidly settles on painting the gloss on the dado rail in the dining room when the wall still needs to be moved because the kitchen’s too small.
The bigger questions are often structural, especially whether to remove chunks that don’t work. Does the plot work? Is there enough pace in the narrative? Is the main character interesting enough?
I recently read someone’s draft novel: over 107,000 words without a single typo. That's an amazing achievement for a writer working alone, with no proof-reading help. It was a highly polished piece of writing. What he had missed were the serious structural issues and that there was far too much interior monologue.
When we do this, I think we do it because we long to call the thing finished. We ache to put it in front of some sort of an audience. We've laboured over it for months or years. If it’s polished we can convince ourselves it’s ready to submit even when a little voice in our heart knows about the lurking problems. We know that, at least, it will look professional, from the micro-angle of the quality of prose. Nobody will be able to say it’s badly written, but will anyone want to read it?