Life usually gives you clear signals about when to stop doing something. When you cough, you stop smoking. When the light turns red, you stop moving. When the tissue appears free of skid marks, you stop wiping.
Writing is trickier, if one has obsessive tendencies. Call it perfectionism (to be polite), OCD (to be clinical), or analness (to be Freudian). It's hard to know when to stop rewriting. Even when I write a casual email, sometimes I read it multiple times before clicking that scary "send" button. It's like farting: once it's out, you can't suck it back.
A friend once said to me that analness is good because anal people keep planes from falling down. True. When planes don't fall from the sky, the engineers know they got it right.
With writing, the standard is more elusive. When I thought I was done with my novel, I kept tinkering with it.
Sometimes, I obsessed over a tiny issue of word choice or punctuation - it was not necessarily wrong but not exactly how I wanted it.
Sometimes, it was a question of aesthetics. The title on the spine of the proof copy was a bit off-center. A millimeter. Maybe two at the most. Few people would notice it, and those who notice would probably be fine with it. Because I couldn't leave well enough alone, I redid my paperback cover.
The worst part was that the book had already been formatted for both ebook and paperback, thus every edit necessitated revising two computer files. Furthermore, a change to the paperback file sometimes ruined the typesetting for the rest of the chapter.
At some point I managed to stop editing.
I moved on to proofreading, making several passes through the manuscript. When I got to the point where it appeared error-free, I showed the manuscript to my partner.
She read it for a few seconds and glanced at me. "You have a typo," she said, pointing to the text. "Read that sentence."
I did. Twice. "I don't see a problem," I said, perplexed. She really shouldn't have smoked that stale weed.
"Read it again," she said.
Upon rereading, I finally noticed a missing word. "Oh," I said, feeling shocked, stupid, and embarrassed all at the same time.
I failed to spot the problem until the third time, and that was after several proofreading passes and after someone pointed out the existence of a mistake. My mind had repeatedly filled in the missing word because I knew exactly how the sentence was supposed to read. I wanted to hurl, thinking: if I extrapolate the error to the entire manuscript, there must be countless problems.
And here's the thing: I'm actually pretty good at spotting textual errors. One of my old bosses said that my accuracy was above average among associates. Ever since I began writing fiction, reading for pleasure is sort of ruined. I can't help but notice errors in published works.
This is a good lesson. You may be good at proofreading other people's work, but it's really hard to do the same for your own.
The mere thought of (again) rereading my manuscript nauseates me, but specks might still be on the paper. It must be clean.
So I keep wiping.