The Writing Life: Doubts Part 2: The Perfect as Enemy of the Good, or Great

Last week I talked about the primal doubt all writers face: the “am I good enough?” (AIGE?) question. Unfortunately it is not alone in the doubt-riddled ecosystem, and other forms of doubt can sabotage progress even when you have managed to ignore AIGE? long enough to get some writing done, and even *gasp* have enjoyed it!

So this week I’m going to mention a classic in the doubt-disguised-as-something-else genre: perfectionism. This is “it’s not good enough,” rather than AIGE? You think you’ve evolved and are no longer doubting yourself as a writer, just trying to improve your writing. You tell yourself these are distinct things. So rather than doubting yourself, you become overly critical of your writing. You doubt your writing, but call it criticism instead. In order to defeat your unacknowledged doubt you need to attain impossible standards. If you can’t get it absolutely right you decide that everything is useless. You obsess over minutiae and let it block you from progressing. Yes I’m being repetitive, because perfectionism is like being caught in a loop, you keep going back over what you’ve written and look only for what’s wrong, and don’t stop to praise what is going oh so right. In fact, you can find and manufacture problems in bits of writing you previously thought were entirely satisfactory, if not great. Because you’re not ready to move on. Or are afraid of moving on, and so it is easier to say that what you’ve written down already isn’t quite good enough yet. Not quite yet. This is revision and editing hell, and malignant perfectionism can grow insidiously during that necessary process. What starts out as a good thing (revisions and improvements to your text), can turn very bad indeed, if you let it.

Now critique is necessary, or our old friend General Zod will rampage out of control and think he’s the best thing since sliced bread again. But if Sally’s unfortunate antithesis the fearful toad arrives and crawls across your manuscript convincing you that each sentence and everything built upon them in terms of plot and character is flawed, then you have a problem. (See last week’s column for an explanation of Zod, Sally, and the toad.)

During revision and editing a writer can experience a crazy new high they’ve never encountered before. They ask for help, receive it, and see their writing get better. Yes! This is AWESOME! However. A trap can be fallen into here. You think “well, if it got so much better after the first pass, and better again after the second pass, and the third, then I’m just going to keep going until it is perfect, an impossible not to love jewel of brilliance! Yes! I can do it!” this is General Zod speaking, because he wants to ensure you get all the praise Sally is basking in, and who couldn’t praise The Perfect Book? He’s a sneaky one. You then put yourself on a treadmill of revisions, at first eagerly, but at some point you begin to tire, and the toad hops along and sits on your chest, eyeing you darkly. It whispers coldly in your ear, “You’ll never get it just right. How many times have you been over this and you still can’t get it right? What were you thinking with this ‘making it better’ idea? Are you sure it wasn’t best when you first wrote it? Have you ruined everything now? Maybe you should just quit.”

Thankfully, for me, when the toad whispered such sweet nothings in my ear I did go back and look at my original, and I recognized how much better I’d made my writing and the story it told. Looking at my first draft helped me realize I was fretting over the small stuff, and that the hard work I’d done had been effective, and I was now chasing phantoms of perfection. So maybe, in a sense, the toad helped out there. Not that I’m thanking it, because a lot of the time it tries to tell you to give up if you obviously (in its traitorous opinion) lack the talent to be perfect. Those kinds of message have to be ignored, but when you are allowing doubt to distort your thinking, and your perception of your work, it is easy to succumb to faulty decision making.

This is why having a team, editors and beta readers you trust, can be so useful. You might want to fall down the rabbit hole of perfectionism, but a good team can help catch you, and tell you you’ve done enough. Or at least remind you of the 80/20 rule and ask if you want to expend massive amounts of effort on the last cosmetic changes you are dementedly insisting are essential. “I’ll lose readers if I leave that ‘that’ in there!! That clunky sentence will kill the book!” If Voltaire and Shakespeare recognized that too much work on a thing can mar its beauty, then I think so can we.

Now I’m not saying revision and editing is the only way to fall into the trap of perfectionism, I’m just saying it is an easy way, as I hope I illustrated above. I think all writers and artists have a streak of perfectionism in them: we all want to present our very best to the world, to entertain, distract, amaze, intrigue, whatever our goals may be. We’re not really interested in putting out substandard work that won’t be as successful as we’d want in getting our message across, so we always strive to do better. This is a good thing, but I think we can trip ourselves up over it and have the striving for more get in the way of ever getting our message out there in the first place. The perfect, or the better, can be a paralyzing enemy of the good, or the great, in my mind. Yes, every first draft is rough and needs help, and yes the story, the characters, the themes can all be made better; the sentences tightened and unnecessary words pruned away, but you’re unlikely get every extra word, and run the risk of pruning away some of the excitement, or joy, or rhythm of your work if you get drowned in the details and lose sight of the bigger, more beautiful picture.

Don’t let dreams of perfection block your vision, and don’t let it trap you in never-ending fixes and rewrites. Take a break, ask for outside perspectives, look back at where you started, and see how far you’ve come down the road toward making something great. Good luck everyone!

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2 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Doubts Part 2: The Perfect as Enemy of the Good, or Great

  1. I feel like this is just the pep talk I’ve been needing. I’ve been working on the same story for almost 20 years because I’m trapped in that perfectionism hole. Thank you for some tools to help me dig myself out!

    1. Glad to help! I had one book I worked on for 15+ years, so I know how easy it can be to fall into the perfectionism trap, and a few other tactics to keep holding yourself back! (Next week: Other People’s Brilliance as a form of doubt creation!)

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