Should You Sweat the Small Stuff?

This happens to me a lot — I make an observation on a forum about an, admittedly, nitpicky problem in a book I’m reading. Invariably, someone is going to comment that writers should write for readers, not for other writers, and that readers just don’t care about the small stuff.

I’m of two minds on this advice.

Mind 1

1. Don’t let great be the enemy of good. At some point, you have to stop editing and let your stuff stand. Power of the Mages, as of this post, is over 123 THOUSAND words. Even if, by some miracle, I’ve managed to pick the best options from the infinite combinations of ideas that I want to convey, the possibility that I’ve chosen the best from the so-large-as-to-be-the-same-as-infinite combinations of words and phrases to convey those ideas is so minutely improbable as to be nil. Even if I worked the next million years on the novel, the chances of getting it even subjectively perfect is small.
2. Quantity is its own quality. I firmly believe that my best chance at becoming someone who makes a living writing lies in creating a bunch of books. It is certainly more efficient, and economically effective, to put out works that are well short of perfect.

Mind 2

1. I can’t help but think that the advice sounds an awful lot like an excuse not to put in the work necessary to become a good writer, so, on one level, it’s hard to respect the attitude.
2. The small stuff can be bigger than you think. Consider this sentence — Instead, he smirked at Tasia with a dark face. There’s nothing really wrong with it on first glance. It made it unscathed through a number of edits, and none of my five beta readers batted an eye at it. Upon further review, though, the character who it refers to is: upset that the girl he loves basically hates him, mad at his friend for stealing said girl, feeling abandoned by the rest of his friends, and anxious knowing that his upcoming meeting with the duke could mean his execution if it doesn’t go well. Is “smirk” really a reasonable expression here? In retrospect, the word stands out like a psychic speedbump preventing me for conveying his true emotions.
3. Small stuff can lead to systematic problems that do impact the reader. The author of a book I’m in the process of reading right now has a bad habit of including a lot of words, phrases, and paragraphs that are not, in my opinion, necessary. An instance here or there probably wouldn’t impact quality over much, but the inclusion of too much irrelevant description in an action sequence completely took me out of the scene and ruined the impact. I think that’s something that, on some level, a lot of readers would notice. The poor technique demonstrated also means that I will probably (holding off final judgment until the end) not give the book more than 3 stars.
4. Small stuff adds up. If I change one word to make it better, does it really do anything for the quality of my book? Probably not any that is readily discernible. What about 10 changes? 100? 1000? 12,000? I’d submit that if I make 10% of my book a tiny bit better that even the average reader is going to notice the overall increase in quality.
5. Your first market isn’t the masses. To an extent, I think that the average person doesn’t notice quality differences in books much at all. They read books because that book has entered the mainstream consciousness, and everybody else is talking about it. If you can get to that level, you’re golden. Your first market, however, is hardcore readers. These are the people who are going to look for your book and discover it. If they like it, they’re going to blog about it and put it on lists and tell their friends to check it out. I think that, on average, these people are more discerning than the average person when it comes to book quality and are more likely to care about the small stuff.

A Merging of the Minds

Don’t let fear of imperfection keep you from trying, but always seek to improve. Seek realistic measures of the quality of your work. Once it’s good enough, get it out there and move on to your next project.

When you get criticism, though, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Investigate if the criticism has merit. If so, learn from it and make your future writing better.


One thought on “Should You Sweat the Small Stuff?

  1. A good breakdown of points. I think there’s a lot you can do about the small stuff, cumulatively, but at some point you’re dealing with vanishing returns. It’s finding that balance that’s the trick.

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