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Friday, November 06, 2015

Pursuing Excellence in the Writing Craft

Robin Patchen is a multi-published author and freelance editor specializing in Christian fiction. As the freelance copyeditor for a contemporary romance publisher, she has the privilege of working with exceptionally talented, multi-published authors. Patchen also loves mentoring new authors and helping established authors polish their books.

Patchen is one of the authors of Five Editors Tackle the Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. This self-editing resource is the latest in the Writer’s Toolbox Series and is designed to teach novelists the skills to pursue excellence in their own writing. It is available now for preorder.

For more information about Robin Patchen, visit her author website at robinpatchen.com or her editing website at robinsredpen.wordpress.com.

I started Finding Amanda, my latest full-length novel, during NaNoWriMo. The first 55,000 words flowed onto the page in November of 2011. I continued quickly through the end of the year, and in January of 2012, I typed those two wonderful words, “The End.”

And then the real work began. The book was mediocre at best. After having eight critique partners read through it, after cutting it from 107,000 words to around 90,000, after pouring over every word painstakingly for a year, it was ready.

NaNoWriMo encourages authors to write fast. But for most writers, that first draft is just the raw material. The masterpiece is created in the editing process. Authors who choose do the hard work to polish their manuscripts are the ones who pursue excellence.

But we Christian authors are writing with God, so it shouldn’t be hard, right? Doesn’t having the Sovereign Creator on our side make the work easy? Far from it. The apostle Paul was working alongside God throughout his ministry, and what does he say about it? “…I worked harder than any of then, though it was not I but the grace of God that is with me” (I Corinthians 15:10). The road to excellence will require diligent work.

Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that excellence is your goal. I would suggest that it should be. There are many scriptures that discuss this issue, but one of my favorites is Malichi 1:14, which reads in part: “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished.” Offering mediocre work to the Lord is a dangerous business. Excellence should be everybody’s goal.

But what is excellence? It is the quality of being excellent, and Merriam-Webster defines excellent like this: “Meritoriously near the standard or model; very good of its kind.” Read that again, and note: Excellent does not mean perfect. Perfection is an impossible standard for us mere humans, and its pursuit often serves only to highlight our flaws and paralyze us with fear.

It seems to me that those who insist on perfection rely on self to achieve it. Isaiah 64:6 reads in part, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Our efforts to be perfect will never amount to anything. To insist on perfection in our work or anybody else’s denies God’s truth that we are frail humans in need of a Savior.

On the other hand, those who strive for excellence trust that the one and only perfect God can use even our flaws for His glory. As Paul says, “When I am weak, He is strong” (I Corinthians 12:10). He is perfect, and in Him and Him alone can we find perfection. He who seeks excellence also understands Psalm 18:32: “It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.”

We may never be perfect, but the pursuit of excellence encourages us to do our very best. Proverbs 22:29 reads, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” Although you may not literally stand before kings, you never know who will read your words, nor can you know the impact you can have when you hone your skills. Pursuing excellence takes work, but consider the alternative: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied (Proverbs 13:4).

Excellence does not mean we are better than others or that we should strive to be. When did God ever say, “Do better than your brother” or “Be excellent, so you can make your sister look bad”? In fact, I Corinthians 4:6 specifically warns against that when it reads in part “…none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” God wants us to offer Him our best efforts without concerning ourselves with what others are doing. The question should not be, “Am I better than my competition?” What we need to ask ourselves is this: “Am I pouring my heart and soul and strength into honing the skills and the craft? Am I walking alongside my Lord, learning from Him and creating with Him?”

Excellence recognizes that God is the source of our talents and the inspiration for our stories. I Corinthians 12:5-6 tells us, “…there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” So God empowers our activities, and only He can take what we create and use it for His glory. Alone, we can only ever hope to achieve mediocre results. But with God, our meager efforts combine with his eternal power to accomplish amazing things. 

Finally, it’s important to note that within the pursuit of excellence is the assumption that we will rest. The Lord takes rest seriously enough that he made this the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We will never learn it all. We will never be perfect, and we don’t have to be. When we realize that God is the Author—and for us novelists, that word takes on special meaning—then we can trust His perfect plan, which always includes rest, rejuvenation, and peace. The result is not up to you. You do your part in pursuing excellence, and God will always show up to do the rest.

In what ways are you pursing excellence in your writing career?

Do you have difficulty separating excellence from perfection?

9 comments:

Normandie Fischer said...

Excellent points, Robin, as we strive for excellence!

Janice L. Dick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janice L. Dick said...

Thanks so much for this post, Robin. I've been reading about dependence on God in my devotions lately, and the idea that independence, trying to do things on our own, is our greatest downfall and pulls us away from God. So your post reaffirms what God has been impressing on my mind.

Blessings.

P.S. My OCD made me delete and repost due to spelling errors! Editor at work.

Tim Suddeth said...

This is a great lesson. That excellence and perfection aren't the same. It is easy to get tied up seeking perfection without appeeciating the beauty you already have. Thank you for putting this thought in such clear and concise words.

Pegg Thomas said...

I'm a recovering perfectionist. While I think I've done pretty well, it's still a struggle sometimes. Excellence is better. :)

Terri said...

Wonderful post, Robin. I'm ashamed to say I'm not sure I'm posting excellence in anything at the moment.

Robin Patchen said...

Terri, I think pursuing excellence is about admitting that sometimes, our work is still in progress. We have to get through all those lousy drafts to dig for the excellent. As long as you're moving forward, which I know you are!

Kelly Blackwell @ Heres My Take On It said...

Great post Robin. Thank you. I work for a Christian radio station and one of the things my manager always tells us is that we should strive for excellence not perfection. It was really freeing because it wasn't about giving up when things aren't perfect, it isn't about matching anyone else, but giving all we have to God's glory.

Your post definitely matched all that encouragement.

Thanks!

Robin Patchen said...

Kelly, I agree entirely! Striving for excellence is freeing--while striving for perfection is disheartening. Thanks for chiming in.