Defeat Your Writing Demons: Turn off your obsession with perfection


For years, I've struggled with the drive for perfection in my writing. What makes it so frustrating is that although I can tame the demon, I can't exorcise it. Just when I think things are going well and I've got everything under control, I slip. When that happens, I lose weeks of writing time as I fight with myself over the acceptability of the material I've just finished. One word, one sentence, and before I know it, I'm spending hours trying to squeeze out a page of fresh writing. There are ways to cope if you suffer from the same condition. I won't promise all of them will work for you, and I can't tell you you'll never suffer again from the disease (because truly, that's what it feels like).

I can say that any help at all is better than none.

I read an article once, titled "The Key to Success: Write More!" by Lee Tobin McClain. The article had the audacity to state that the key to success in the publishing industry isn't to write better, but to write more. In essence, that quantity is more important than quality.

Surprisingly, the article pulled me out of a cycle of perfectionism and told me something I needed to hear.

Because no matter how much I don't want to admit it, the article was right.

Quantity does matter more than quality.

You can't fix what isn't there. Something is better than nothing. Revision is easier than creation. All these pithy phrases tell a truth that's sometimes hard to believe.

Last week I spent two days writing a scene. After the scene was finished, it didn't feel right to me. I couldn't place my finger on the part that needed work, because it wasn't a grammar issue, or a characterization problem, or anything I could name. But something was wrong with that scene.

The only solution was to rewrite. So I sat down and, starting at the top, I worked my way through the scene, line-by-line, word-by-word, rewriting almost every sentence. And when I was done, I was happy. Whatever the problem had been, rewriting had fixed it.

It took me one hour.

There's my proof, one instance of many, which shows me my truth--revision is easier than creation. Two days to create the scene. One hour to fix it.

It's a reaffirmation that something is better than nothing. And it gives me permission to write anything rather than nothing.

If I follow my own advice and I write a scene that later has to be cut in its entirety, for whatever reason, what have I lost?

I've spent a few hours working on something for my story, rather than watching a few television programs or visiting forums on the internet. I've created something that might need a little work to make it as strong and compelling as it could be. But therein is a thoroughly compelling reason to focus on quantity rather than quality.

If you spend two days writing the perfect scene, it's much harder to let it go when it comes time to cut during the editing and revision stage of your writing. If you've only invested a couple of hours, it's not so hard. And regardless of whether or not the scene is in top shape, you'll know that much sooner if it's right for the story.

Here are the tips I've gathered and used to help me conquer the drive for perfectionism in my writing. (Let me just say that these apply only to the first draft -- or first few drafts, if that's the kind of writer you are. I would never suggest that perfectionism doesn't have its place in the final stages of revision--but that's another article.)

  1. Use timed writing.

    Timed writing offers you the chance to let the words flow from your subconscious to your fingers, without stopping anywhere in between for fixing-up. I find that timed writing works best if you stay strict with yourself. Don't allow yourself to stop typing for any reason. Use it, force the words out, even if you feel like your story is spinning out of control within the confines of your timed writing session. You'll be surprised at how much of your writing turns out to be fit reading. I was. If it makes you more comfortable, use a temporary file to write in (ctrl+s offers a quick, unobtrusive way of making sure you keep your document saved as your fingers rocket over the keys).
  2. Have a mantra.

    Don't feel ridiculous if you have to repeat "I'm a brilliant writer" a hundred and thirty-two times while you finish a scene just so you don't drop into a spell of slow writing as you try to make every word as perfect as you can manage.
  3. Don't delete anything.

    Save your cuts in a folder, or at the end of the document. If it's only a sentence or two, leave them on the page. If you find yourself rewriting a sentence over and over, it's a quick reality check to see the previous versions right there on the computer screen or on the tablet in front of you. When you reach five versions of the same sentence, you'll know you've dropped into a cycle of perfectionism. Take a look at your words. From the first sentence to the last, have you really made the writing that much tighter and leaner, more descriptive, less repetitious, stronger? Is it truly better? I bet you'll find that the third version isn't better than the fifth--only different.
  4. Remember that to be perfect, you actually have to be.

    Nothing isn't perfect. In fact, nothing doesn't exist. If you're determined to write perfect prose every time you sit down to write, just remember that something has to exist for something to be perfect. You have to write a complete book to have written a book. There are no perfect unfinished books. Unfinished books are imperfect by their very nature.

    So, the reality is that quality is a product of quantity, because without quantity, there's nothing to have quality.
  5. Write a summary at the beginning of every scene.

    When you start a new scene, write a summary of the scene at the beginning, to remind you whenever you slow down of what you need to write into the scene. There's nothing that'll speed writing along better than knowing where you're going and how you're going to get there. If you prefer to write by the seat of your pants (as I do), write this scene summary immediately before you write the scene. Resist the urge to polish by following and remembering the tips I've already given you. Set a timer before you start the scene, talk out loud as you type the words onto the screen or scrawl them on your paper, don't delete anything as you write except blatant typos, and remember, your goal is to make it to the end of the scene fast enough to still hold passion for what you've written.
  6. Disgust breeds disaster.

    Don't let yourself become disgusted by your imperfect writing. You'll be tempted to delete everything and start fresh. Don't do it. Edit, revise, and keep in mind that even going sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, will be faster than starting at the beginning with nothing but a blank page to guide you. If, after you've finished the scene, you can't go on without perfecting it, then perfect it. You'll probably find, as I have, that perfecting a finished scene is much simpler and faster than perfecting something unfinished.

I hope these tips can help you. I know the struggle seems never ending, and you may never truly exorcise the demon of perfectionism, but it does get easier. Habits develop and writing that first draft becomes a matter of quantity, not quality-something instead of nothing. Good luck.

© 2012 Terescia Harvey

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