The Writers Circle

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Nitpicking

When my son got lice a few years ago – quite common among the elementary school set – I came to appreciate the true meaning of “nitpicking”. Plucking those tiny, disgusting nits from the roots of his baby fine hair was tedious, but necessary work.

484px-Nitpicking_mg_0070Now I apply the term to its more familiar, metaphorical use (Thank God!) as I sit with three copies of my manuscript before me.

Page by page, I review the comments of my last insightful readers, checking their suggestions against one another and my own, trying each tiny shift in sentence construction this way and that, pausing at each question to consider their confusion or ideas, all the while pushing my ego out of the way to be sure that I make the right decision for my manuscript.

It’s tedious work, but invaluable and necessary to give my novel its final polish. These carefully chosen readers each know and love literature in a slightly different way.  They each offer intelligent and careful observations.  Each of them has slightly different thoughts, and different places that bring them to questioning.  That is a comfort.  In my classes, I often say, “Don’t worry too much when one person is confused.  If two or three are questioning, go back and check.  If the whole room is befuddled, take their suggestions seriously.”

So I’m grateful that no one particular thing has troubled or confused everyone who has read the manuscript in the last month or so. Still, each reader has made suggestions and asked questions, some I hadn’t even thought of before. That’s the value of good outside readers. They don’t know your world or your intent, so they see the work fresh and with an open mind. They’re also sympathetic, giving you the opportunity to clarify what’s confused them. Some writers use outside readers after nearly every draft. For me, I like to wait until I’m certain that I can’t get any farther without an outside opinion.

So here I am at the end of my literary journey, giving extra care and attention to each query, no matter how small. I know that my readers’ confusion and insights will help other readers I may never have the chance to meet. Once it’s published, our writing must communicate for us. We don’t often have the luxury to explain.

I embrace this kind of nitpicking with far more willingness than another round of lice. It’s tedious, but in the end I know it will make my novel transparent, gripping and ultimately enjoyable to anyone who chooses to read it.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

2 comments on “Nitpicking

  1. Karen B. Kaplan
    June 11, 2013

    An even more tedious task is to delete extra spaces, delete or add commas, check for words that have to be joined by a hyphen versus made into one word versus a space between them, check capitalization, check spelling out numbers versus writing the numerals, etc. I and a proofreader just got done doing this for my book, and this process is the mother of all nitpicking. But we gotta do it for the ultimate beauty of the thing and for our own self-respect. Karen B. Kaplan

    • Judith
      June 11, 2013

      Hi, Karen. Thanks for sharing your experience. Indeed, that is the dreadful copyediting stuff that must be done with an outside eye. We writers cannot – repeat CANNOT – see our own mistakes. Especially if one is self-publishing, it’s even more critical to get someone good to do it for you, since you want your work to be as professional as a “Big-Six” book. I recently read a serious literary prize-winner’s latest novel and found some shocking copy-editing oversights. Even they can’t get it right! It’s definitely worth it. Good for you!

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