Zeno’s Paradox and Manuscript Drafts

Okay, I’ll admit it. I double majored in creative writing and philosophy, what I’ve often described as the two most unemployable degrees I could have pursued. Luckily, that sentiment turned out to not be completely true, as I’ve made a living out of writing and editing, so that half of my BA has become nicely functional. And now with what little of the philosophy half remains in my mind, I get a little extra enjoyment out of watching The Good Place, so I guess in retrospect it was win/win. Moving on.

Zeno was a Greek philosopher of the fifth century BCE. One of his most well-known philosophical thought experiments is called the Dichotomy Paradox. Imagine you’re about to take a walk; it could be across the room, around the block, or across the country, the total distance doesn’t matter. The problem is, in order to reach a destination, you first have to travel half the distance there. And then half the remaining distance, and so on. But to travel just half the distance to a point, repeatedly, never gets you there, but instead only gets you incrementally closer. Thus, asserted Zeno, motion must be an illusion.

Don’t worry, there are mathematical ways to unpack the paradox and show how an infinite series of finite amounts can total to a finite sum, not infinity, so you will actually be able to reach the TV to change channels to The Good Place if your remote isn’t working. But when I most relate to the Dichotomy Paradox is while writing, and the two halves of my BA seem to come to metaphorical blows with one another.

Imagine you have a spec manuscript you need to finish or revise; it could be a short story, a novella, or a novel, the total page count doesn’t matter. The problem is, in order to finish the project, you first have to complete half of the pages. And then half the remaining pages, and so on. But to write or edit just half the pages left, repeatedly, never gets you to the final page, but instead only gets you incrementally closer. Thus, completing a spec manuscript must be an illusion.

If you’re an obsessive/excessive manuscript polisher, this is not just a thought experiment, but a real-world danger. It’s like someone who spends so much time customizing their car they never get it out of the garage. But note that I specified it was a spec manuscript. When I have a contracted manuscript with a black-and-white deadline, I just get the thing done and get it to my editor. It’s when I’m working on something on my own that I run into this wall. Or, I should say, never run into the wall, but just watch it loom closer and closer.

I’m not saying all this to lead up to enlightening you with the magic solution I’ve found around the problem; on the contrary, I’m struggling with the paradox right now as I revise Novella #2, which I’ve referred to in previous posts. On the one hand, I firmly believe that all the changes I’ve made have improved the manuscript. On the other hand, I really just need to finish the thing and send it off somewhere. As I’ve previously mentioned in various places, the author M. D. Lake once told me, “You don’t have to submit a perfect manuscript, just an editable one.” Which, I suppose, is a mantra that is as close to a magic solution for Zeno’s Manuscript Paradox as there can be.

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