You heard it here first. I am a fan of writing horrible drafts. Not publishing them, not reading them, but the only way I can get from HERE to THERE and from THIS to THAT is to let go of any notion of perfectionism in writing. You know, the same philosophy I have with the laundry. That’s not to be said that I don’t polish my work to a shine in the end, the way I iron my clothes (yes I do, pretty much daily). But to get there I LET GO.
Today, author Kathryn Maeglin shares her thoughts on perfectionism as well as her Serenity Prayer for Perfectionists. Do you need to reform? Or do you have advice? Chime in below.
And please welcome Kathryn Maeglin to Women’s Fiction Writers.
Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Try To Be Perfect
I was raised in a family of perfectionists, so it’s not surprising I ended up spending most of my journalism career as an editor. My perfectionism served me especially well when I was a copy editor. But as a novelist, perfectionism can be a major liability. Why? Because it slows . . . you . . . down.
As Henry David Thoreau wrote back in the middle of the 19th century, “If thou art a writer, write as if thy time were short, for it is indeed short at the longest.” If Thoreau could see the publishing industry now, he might say, “Write as if thy publisher will dump thou if thou doth not pump books out fast enough.”
Now don’t get me wrong; I understand the value of slowing down enough to ensure you’re producing a top-quality product. But when you’re writing a scene where a character is eating yogurt in London, and you end up on the website of a British grocery store chain to make sure you use a brand name and flavor that actually exist, you’re being too fussy for your own good. Accuracy is essential for a journalist, but for a novelist, plausibility is your goal.
At a time when the marketplace is choked with competition like never before, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your work has to be flawless before you can send it off. I saw a blog post by an agent who said your query and manuscript need to be “perfect” these days if you hope to have any chance of being traditionally published. I think there’s some truth to that since a manuscript that does everything right may stand out and will require less editing. But “perfect” and “excellent” are not the same thing.
Striving for perfection will drive you nuts. Trust me, I know because I struggle with it every day. I wish I had the perfect antidote to perfectionism, but I don’t. What I can share are a few of the strategies I’ve learned to combat the prissy proponents of perfectionism.
First of all, I came up with The Perfectionist’s Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept that I’ll never be perfect,
The courage to say “No” to my inner critic,
And the wisdom to know when my best is good enough.
As long as we writers are human, our work will never be perfect. When your creative juices are flowing free, don’t let your internal editor turn off the spigot. As Anne Lamott tells us in her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird, it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. You’ve probably heard the expression “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.” You know what? It is. Time to move on.
Secondly, recognize that fear is probably what’s driving your perfectionism: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, etc. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t get something perfect. Worldwide famine? Nuclear apocalypse? The Nobel Prize in Literature will go to Snooki instead of you? When I push my fears to a ridiculous extreme, it reminds me how miniscule my concerns generally are. Just do the best you can, and if you don’t succeed this time, you’ll learn from the process and improve.
Third, try a sort of exposure therapy where you intentionally leave some things “imperfect.” Send an email to a friend without proofreading it. Resist looking up a word when you’re 90-percent sure of its meaning. Set a timer when you crack open your thesaurus, and if you haven’t found a better word after five minutes, go with what you’ve got. If you don’t waste time “perfecting” the less important things, you’ll have more time for polishing what does need extra attention.
Finally, there are books that can help. The Lamott book mentioned above has a whole chapter on perfectionism. If you’re someone who struggles with perfectionism in virtually every area of your life (join the club!), there’s a book I’ve found helpful titled When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, by Martin M. Antony and Richard R. Swinson.
Now with the power vested in me by the fictitious Perfectionists Anonymous, I hereby grant you permission to be imperfect. Of course, you don’t need permission from me. You need it from yourself.
Kathryn Maeglin started her writing career as an award-winning journalist. But after too many years of being constrained by the facts, she began writing fiction. Her goal is to write entertaining and meaningful stories women can relate to, and to have fun doing it. Soul Mate Publishing recently released the paperback edition of her first published novel, A Hunka Hunka Nursing Love. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, eating junk food, or hanging out with friends and family, and probably talking too much. She lives in the Midwest, is married, and has two overfed, underemployed cats.