Volunteer Nathan shares the pros and cons of withdraw technology for writers.
Back when snail mail was the only medium for submitting work to publishers aside from knocking on their office door, writers had to be finished with their work in ways we don’t today. Now that websites like Submittable allow us writers to withdraw submissions after we have sent them, the proofreading and editing process continues to entice us indefinitely. We can now reread our submissions months after sending them, and if we see room for improvement, and if the publisher has not accepted or declined, we can withdraw – rewrite – resubmit. With books on tablets, it’s only a matter of time before novels become indefinite works-in-progress that get edited and rewritten as writers respond to readers responding to them. Yikes.
Writers are fickle artists. We are never satisfied with yesterday’s draft. Word order, phrasing and rhythm are ever evolving components of our craft. We are the last group that should be empowered with noncommittal technologies like a Withdraw button. We should reserve this right for when other publishers have accepted the work or when we have been bad proofreaders and submitted factual, grammatical or usage errors.
I recently sent a 1600-word piece to a local imprint. After sending it, I discovered a usage error. I know, I know, shame on me. I am such an unprofessional. I used the American usage of the word toward for an English character, when the English usage of the word is actually towards. The imprint accepts submissions via email so I was unable to withdraw my entry. The idea crossed my mind to send an embarrassing and unprofessional email stating something like, “Please forgive my amateurism, but I would like to retract my submission” but that would only make matters worse. I have stayed silent.
The Atticus Review accepts work through Submishmash and Submittable. After over two dozen rewrites over several months, I sent a 600-word piece of flash fiction to them. Before it was (rightly) rejected, I constantly resisted the urge to withdraw and rewrite. The presence of the tempting withdraw button was like an eight-ball placed in the middle of a narcotics anonymous circle. Every time I read the piece with fresh eyes, I noticed at least one place for improvement. I noticed syntax flubs and clunky sentences. The piece was unfocused and clearly meant to make me feel clever. This time, it wasn’t my grammar that was in need of polish but my style and tone.
I’m happy I resisted the urge to prolong the process and withdraw and that I received the humbling and all powerful rejection. When it comes to nitpicking, the process could go on forever. Where would any of us get if we weren’t, at least sometimes, forced to commit to a single draft? Treadmill writing would replace the process of critique or trial and error. Where’s the trial without the verdict? Where’s the error without the failure? Writers groups might enter a form of inert monotonous stasis where nobody moves forward. Rewriting is important, but it is not more important than writing new things.
If books on tablets begin to be updated the way our phones and apps are, we are in for a whole new way of reading. Writers will be given license to non-commit to everything. Imagine if your Kindle copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, one day contained an update that placed the characters in 1980s London. Would Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize be withdrawn? What if the authority on edits is granted to copyright holders and not necessarily to authors? Maybe then The Great Gatsby would be updated to end with a Hollywood-like happily-ever-after with Jay and Daisy. Market research shows audiences enjoy stories with happy endings, after all. Would we still use Fitzgerald’s book High School English? Yikes.
This is all, of course, hypothetical hyperbole, but it underscores the change that writers have experienced by having a tempting Withdraw button. It’s worth giving boundaries to. Aside from problems with publishing or factual/grammatical errors, writers should stick to the draft they send. If it gets rejected, they can always rewrite for the next submission. Long live the final draft.