Six impossible things

Making it Perfect

Everyone I know wants to do good work. Very few will admit to wanting their work to be perfect, either because they’ve had “nothing’s perfect” drummed into them, because they don’t want to appear to be saying that they are so good they can write perfect fiction when nobody else can, or because they don’t want to be accused of being a perfectionist.

If you look at the way writers behave, rather than at what we say, you will likely realize very quickly that a lot of us are, in fact, perfectionists. We say we want to write “good books,” and then define “good” so that it is synonymous with “perfect,” even if we’d never admit that in public (or even to ourselves). And this causes a ton of difficulties for writers.

The first problem is that trying to make one’s work perfect, first time, every time, inevitably results in a huge drop in productivity. I’ve seen and heard people argue that this is not so; that striving to make one’s work better just means that one has to spend more butt-in-chair time to get it that way. This argument overlooks two things:

1) Writing productivity is usually defined in terms of words/pages-per-hour/day/week/month/year. You can fudge your “productivity level” in either direction by changing the parameters. A writer who writes 5,000 words per hour, but who can only manage to do so by spending an entire month in planning and preparation, and a writer who writes 165 words per day, every single day without fail, will both end up with around 60,000 words produced at the end of a year. Productivity depends in part on process, and while there may be some flex in the amount of time Writer A needs to spend planning or the number of words Writer B can produce every single day without running dry, there often is not as much wiggle room as people think or hope. Writers are not machines.

2) Time is limited. No one can spend more than 24 hours out of 24 hours with butt-in-chair; once somebody hits that ceiling, that is it. Also, nobody can hit that ceiling and stay there for long; there are life-maintenance things like sleeping and eating that take time out of those 24 hours, and that can’t be ignored for very long without a severe decline in quality (which is the thing the perfectionist is supposedly pursuing). Even machines need down time for repairs and maintenance, and writers are still not machines. If you starve your brain of food and sleep, it won’t function well, any more than a car with no gas and flat tires will be able to go very far. If you starve your backbrain of quality input – learning new stuff, seeing new places, experiencing new things – you will not get quality output. Garbage in, garbage out.

The second problem is the rising bar. The more one knows about the craft of writing, the easier it is to see the flaws in one’s own work. And of course, nobody wants to send out a manuscript that they know contains obvious flaws. The catch is that one sees more of these with practice…and writing a novel is a lot of practice. So is revising a novel. One can end up caught in Zeno’s Paradox – getting halfway to “good” with every rewrite, but never, ever reaching the goal. In extreme cases, the writer becomes like Emily Dickenson, and doesn’t send anything out; in less extreme cases, the writer eventually lets it go, but is never really happy with anything that has made it to the bookstores, because none of it is as good as they believe it could be.

The third problem is not so much an actual quality problem as it is one of differing standards – and the fear of differing standards. If there were one single, clear, obvious, agreed-upon standard for what is “good writing,” nobody would ever ask why this or that book was so highly acclaimed (or panned) when it was so terrible (or terrific). Publication includes the risk of finding out that a whole lot of people disagree with the writer’s standards – they demand more of X, less of Y, don’t think those clever turns of phrase are particularly clever, dislike the stylistic tweaks the writer thought were ground-breaking, and so on.

Writers are an odd mix of bullet-proof confidence and incredible fragility. We want our work to be the best we can do for a lot of good reasons…and, occasionally, for a few bad ones. We want to show people the cool stuff we do, and we’re afraid to find out that it isn’t as cool as we thought it was. Perfectionism is safe. I’ve heard plenty of people complain that a writer rushed through a story too hastily and did a lousy job as a result; I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone complain that a story was too well-written.

Furthermore, writers who never look at their work critically or try to make it better rarely improve much. This makes the whole perfectionism thing a balancing act: making the work better without getting bogged down in a fruitless attempt to get it perfect. Every writer has to find their own balance point; quite often that balance point differs from book to book. About all I can recommend is to stop and think about it from time to time, and examine whether the sort of changes one is making (or thinking of making) are things that will make enough of a difference in the final product to be worth spending additional time on them. And also, examine your definitions of “good,” “good enough,” and “perfect” periodically to see how much they overlap.

  1. I can only write one way: until it is good enough for my standards. It’s not that I’m better than anyone else, but I am extremely slow, and it’s literally the best I can do.

    This is why, even though I blog about writing (when the brain is not up to creating fiction, and I HAVE to write or go mad), it always surprises me when something I write about resonates with a blog reader.

    I’ve come not to expect those – to write the way I do in tiny pieces requires a degree of planning few are willing to undertake (or NEED to undertake) – and people who need to write like me are (fortunately for them) rare.

    I’m chuckling, though, because I found some typos, and immediately had to do a mea culpa about it, and to add a step in the process so it probably doesn’t happen again (that particular error).

    Who said that at least he only committed errors once?

  2. Hah! I just started writing a new story this week, and spent more time than was advisable worrying about whether the opening paragraph was exactly right. The thing is that openings are almost always what I struggle with no matter what the writing style (college term papers, anyone?), and as I kept pointing out to myself, it is perfectly serviceable. Maybe I’ll keep it, maybe not, but it got me away from the Blank Page of Death and into the story. So this totally rings true for me right now!

  3. I read an interview with John Irving in which he said that he will still be making edits to his novels after they are published, right on the printed page. I don’t claim his stature, but I certainly do the same thing with my stories.

    Perfect is a moving target.

  4. I always come to a point in my stories where I have to say stop, that’s enough, let it go. Otherwise I could revise forever. It’s not always easy to know where that point is, but I’m getting better at it.

  5. “Very few will admit to wanting their work to be perfect… because they don’t want to be accused of being a perfectionist.”

    Hey, I’ve been a perfectionist, and proud of it, since I turned twelve—which was *months* ago! (How many months I leave as an exercise for the reader.)

    The truth is, an artist/writer/whathaveyou can never convey what they’re going for.

    This seems tragic from the creator’s point of view, but one must remember that the viewer of a work does not have that perfect inner vision to which to compare the reality of the product. They see the thing for itself―and when it is not juxtaposed against some other vision of what it should have been, well, ’twill suffice.

    And FWIW, some more-or-less relevant quotations:

    “Details are trifles, but trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.”
    ―Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
    ―Anne Lamott (1954–)

    “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
    ―David Foster Wallace (1962–2008)

  6. I know that I am lazy, so I deliberately set my threshold for “acceptable” somewhat higher than feels good enough when I’m writing it. On the other side, whatever software I’m using, I need a system that lets me mark something for later revision, because I need to go on to other things; otherwise I’ll keep worrying at it with less and less effect.

    The latest thing got bashed around a lot in its semi-choate stages, more with the draft reviewers, and very significantly back and forth with the editor – and it improved at every stage.

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