Friday, September 7, 2012

When is a Paper Finished?

People generally worry about beginning an endeavor, not just when writing a paper in college, but when doing anything challenging at all. Which step is the most strenuous and perilous of any journey? 

The first, of course. 

The logic behind this thinking could be dubious, but it does have a certain clich├ęd wisdom to it as well. Imagine running around a track: once you take that first step, you feel a certain lubrication in your joints. You feel your muscles twitch and scintillate. This beneficial process happens very quickly. It is as if the momentum of your first stride is transferred to the subsequent stride, until, eventually, a person finds it more difficult to arrest his progress than to maintain it. But, in the beginning of an endeavor, there is no momentum to transfer to the first stride, one must move without the aid of any previous movement. (This may also partially explain why getting out of bed in the afternoon often seems impossible).

Writers have a special relationship with the difficulty of beginning to write. The blanching dullness of the empty sheet of paper or the blinking cursor has driven many students and many novelists, as well, to the brink of if not madness, then at least to brink of f-word formulation.

The phrase "writer's block" may not create such a gruesome image, but when I think about it what I imagine is a beheading, or to be more specific a mock-beheading. I envision an executioner, his face concealed behind his mask, his guffaws concealed behind nothing. "You're a writer, are you?" 

I nod meekly; I may articulate a monosyllable with more bass in my voice than usual, attempting to give off the impression of heroic masculinity. But however I choose to vary my affirmation, he proceeds by setting his ax down and then calling over to his assistant who dutifully brings onto the platform a square hunk of wood with the words "writer's block" burned into the side. 

The actors then assume their positions: the executioner on my flank, me on my knees with my head resting on the "writer's block." I await the ax, but it doesn't fall. Rather, the instrument stubbornly defies its manipulator, keeping the entire ensemble poised in a diorama of absurdity.  

As you can see, I have a keen appreciation for the psychological difficulties that confront the writer before the writing has begun. However, I also have a keen appreciation for the process that follows the writer as he writes, especially the moment when he decides to cease writing. 

How does a writer decide when a piece of writing is finished, when his work is done? 

Many students may initially find the question ridiculous. It’s obvious that the piece of writing is finished when the word count reads 501 or 756 or 1001. Respecting the word count limit of a professor is necessary, but a student should be wary of allowing the stipulated limit to dominate their thoughts. 

It seems safe to assume that some students have a more complex mechanism for determining when their work is finished rather than merely checking its length against the requirements stated in the assignment sheet.  

I wonder how this mechanism functions in these students. Presumably, like most writers, these students have to balance the desire to perfect their work with their desire to keep a deadline. They can’t spend years perfecting an essay that is due next Friday. And yet, despite the temporal constraints that bind the writer, a certain amount of perfecting is possible. 

On the surface, grammar mistakes can be corrected in the aftermath of a tempest of composition, punctuation can be made ideal according to one of the guides which ratify such things, perhaps a repetition of words or phrases will be discovered and then omitted. All these improvements help a paper become more perfect, but do such improvements make a paper perfect enough to print and staple and then forget about? 

Is a student finished working on a paper after he has satisfied these basic proofreading techniques, or does he continue to think about what he’s already written and what may be expressed in better words? 

Unlike other endeavors one might prosecute during a lifetime, say, climbing Mount Everest, the completion of a written work is an abstract achievement. You know when you've reached the summit of Mt. Everest; there are signs hammered into the ice. Climbers know when to retrieve their cameras and pose in celebration. Writers, on the other hand, cannot know where the summit is. If any signage exists, it certainly isn't hammered into the ice. In other words the mountain climber can always exclaim: "I'm there! I've done it!" Whereas the writer, poor benighted creature, can only murmur: "Am I there?"    

In a sense, deciding when a paper is finished presents a writer with a different kind of inertial problem. In the beginning, a writer has no momentum to transfer to the composition of his next sentence, which leads to anxiety. 

In the end, a writer has so much momentum that he may not know when to stop himself. This lack of knowledge can lead to a different kind of “writer’s block,” one which doesn’t get the same respect, but can in certain cases lead to similar amounts of anxiety.     

1 comment:

  1. Evocative musing on the effects of inertia and momentum on writers, the physics of composition.