Confessions of a Reformed Perfectionist
I’m sure you’ve all heard this phrase before. It’s a good one. And yes, it applies to many fields of use, and writing is no exception. Simply put, perfectionism is bad for your writing, especially if it keeps you from ever finishing.
The realization that trying to be perfect was bad for my writing came years after having been a perfectionist. (Go figure.)
The first book I ever wrote is one that I’m proud of. However, it was a book that took me seven years to finish. Why? Because it had to be perfect.
I think of all that time—all that time that I could have spent writing other stories, and other books. But I just couldn’t move on. I had to make my book perfect.
I thought, “if it’s not perfect, no agent will ever want this.”
Can anyone relate to this?
Now that’s not to say that it’s not important to turn in the very best work possible to an agent, because it is. But that doesn’t mean that you should write one book for seven years.
Here are some reasons to move on from perfectionism.
Perfectionism Is Bad for Your Writing
Perfectionism puts you in a state of productivity paralysis. It makes you feel stuck. It makes you feel you’ll be working on the same thing for the rest of your life. That was how I felt when I was working on my first book.
Give up perfectionism so you don’t end up hating your work.
It’s been several years now since I finished that book and now I can feel proud of what I did. But for a long time. I couldn’t even stand to look at it. I’d spent so much time working on it, that I almost felt I hated it.
Now don’t get the idea that it’s okay to end up hating it if it’s perfect because you’ll eventually get over that, and as long as agents love it’s fine. If you don’t like your book, you will have a hard time ever seeing it “done” let alone perfect, and you will have a hard time selling it. If you don’t like it, how are you going to be its number one advocate to agents and editors?
You’re not. That’s how.
If you can teach yourself to write your book and then move on to other projects as quickly as possible, you’re gonna be more productive.
That’s just how that works. Right?
If you spend all of your time on one thing for years and years and years, you will be less productive. No rocket science in this formula.
Like I said above, I think about all the time I wasted on that one book, (seven years!), when I could have been writing other books.
I now average two to four books a year. If I’d figured out how to just get my books done, I’d have 14 to 28 books more than I have now. If I had just finished that book and moved on. But no, it had to be perfect.
Nothing is perfect.
No matter how hard you work on your story, there will always be something you can change, something to fix. That’s just a fact.
I think as creative writers, especially, we tend to be hard on ourselves and on our work. Because of this, we can always see the flaws in everything we do. Because of the nature of many creative people, many of us just rarely have the same confidence in creative writing as many others have in many other fields.
And that’s okay.
The idea is to realize and accept our work is never gonna be perfect. “It’s not that I can’t muster perfect, it’s just that it doesn’t exist.”
Most everyone who writes, or does anything creative, goes through the same thing. But there has to be a stopping point somewhere.
When you’re a perfectionist, it makes it hard to get started on another project.
When I started writing my second book, some time in the last two years of completing my first book, I remember feeling a lot of anxiety about starting another project.
I knew this book wouldn’t take me seven years.
I had grown a lot as a writer, my skill had improved, but that seven-year number was still hanging over my head. Starting the next book felt daunting. So I put it off. And I put it off. And I put it off. Even though I had a fun idea that I was excited about.
I figured it might take me two to three years to write the next book. Not because that’s how long it took me, that one only took me a year, but because of my previous experience with writing a book.
But it didn’t stop me from feeling anxious about starting another book.
Being a perfectionist is inhibiting.
It stops creative flow. When you’re constantly stopping to think, “is this how this should sentence should be written? Is there a better way to put this? Should I move scenes around? I should probably scrap this entire chapter, and maybe the 2nd third of the book,” you’re putting yourself in a vicious, unproductive cycle.
Doing that stops you from being able to get into a flow. It’s hard to get through your book if you can’t even finish it because you have to keep going back and fixing what you already wrote.
And it’s hard to create the best possible product that way.
Our most creative ideas come when we’re completely uninhibited.
So, that’s a fun way to think of it. If you want a perfect first draft, all you have to do is write it.
In the comments, tell me of a time when you came up with a great idea or great scene, while you were taking a shower or brushing your teeth or doing the dishes or gardening, or driving somewhere, whatever, where you came up with an amazing scene.
Because at that moment you weren’t in front of your computer you were just talking to yourself. You were uninhibited.
Then as soon as you got in front of your computer, you couldn’t think of what you’d come up with. (This is also why you should have a writer’s notebook with you at all times. Well . . . maybe not in the shower.)
Being a perfectionist keeps you from delegating. Now in the writing phrase, you might think, “Well, I’m not gonna have somebody help me write my book. I have to write it myself.”
But that’s not exactly true. If you’re smart, you’ve gotten yourself into a writing group. These people will help you. Now they’re not going to write it for you, that takes away delegating, but they help you write a better book. Also, you’ll have somebody at the end of your book do a developmental edit, and a proofread. (These are the two edits essential for every book.)
Now, I’ve had many a new author hire me to do a developmental edit or proofread and then refuse to take my advice. Sometimes they’re right, ultimately it’s up to you, but other times they’ll ignore important suggestions, and not just with grammar and spelling but with developmental edits that should have been added. Why? Because only they know what’s right!
They can’t let anyone else have a say, because they don’t think they know, but sometimes your writing groups and your editors and proofreaders are right. Sometimes they know better than you how to improve your book.
Further, especially if you’re going to be self publishing, you’re going to have a lot of responsibilities on your shoulders.
Not only are you going to have to write your books, you’re gonna have to get them edited, make the edits, you’re gonna have to publish and market them yourself. There’s a lot of responsibility involved. When you’re a self-published author. Being able to delegate some responsibilities will make your life so much easier.
Which means you have to give up perfectionism.
DO THIS INSTEAD
When you sit down at your computer just write. Let the words flow. Don’t stop and go back and edit as you go.
Don’t jump from scene to scene.
Don’t start your writing day off by going back and editing what you’ve already written.
In fact, to remind yourself of what you wrote before maybe only go back even a paragraph or two at the most. That should be enough to remind you, and then just keep going.
The point of the first draft is just to exist, remember, so get it down.
Don’t stop, do nothing but write.
Have a notebook next to you. If you’re worried if, let’s say you come up with an idea halfway through your book, but it hasn’t been applied to the first half of your book because you just came up with it, you can quickly jot it down.
When you’re done writing the first draft, you can go back and add that in.
And, bonus, jotting your idea down real quick in a notebook won’t inhibit flow. It’s something you can do real quick.
Keep the notebook next to your computer with a pencil so you don’t have to search, jot the idea down in a sentence or two, and then get back into your manuscript.
Once you finish your book, especially if you’re worried about it being perfect, set it aside and don’t look at it for a while.
Give yourself some space and time between you and the manuscript. That way you’ll be able to go back and look at it with fresh eyes. You can read through it a second time, make changes as you go, because now’s the time for that.
But also give yourself a deadline.
When I make edits in my books, I give myself two weeks. Often, it’ll only take me a few days to get through, however.
That said, I have a very extensive outlining system which helps me to make my first draft amazingly clean and easy to read. So I don’t have to worry about plot holes too much or anything like that.
Now, if your first drafts aren’t very clean, that’s okay. Maybe you need to give yourself some more time. So, like I said, I give myself two weeks. But you might need to give yourself a month or two months. That’s fine.
Regardless of how much time you need, it’s imperative to set a goal and work on it every day. Give yourself an amount of time every day to work on the second draft of your book and get it done.
Figure out how long you take to edit a page or two pages or five pages. How much can you get done in half an hour? How much can you get done in an hour? Then divide the number of pages by how much you work everyday on it into the number of pages in the book.
That’s how long it’ll take you to complete the second draft on your book.
So, let’s say your book is 250 pages long. You can do five pages in a half an hour, 10 pages in an hour. It’ll take you, 20, to 25 days to do a complete edit on your book.
Finish your book and immediately start a new one.
Don’t stop writing just because you’re not working on that book anymore. One of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer, is create a daily writing habit. Now when I say daily. For me, that’s Monday through Friday. I write every day for two hours, and sometimes more if I’m on a roll.
That might not be the case for you. For you, three days a week for an hour might be all you do, and that’s great. The point is to make a writing habit and to stick with it. Discipline as a writer will be your very best friend.
Don’t stop writing. Just because you’re done with a book, doesn’t mean you should stop writing.
So train yourself.
And remember perfectionism is bad for your writing and, done is better than perfect.
If you found this article helpful or if you have questions or comments, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment below and tell me what you think. And I’d also love to hear about your experiences with perfectionism and overcoming them if you have them.