Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It’s perfect. Now make it perfecter

By Joe Moore

Here’s a comment I hear from new writers: “I want to edit and polish my writing as I go, but I wind up getting nowhere because I’m obsessed with making it perfect the first time.”

This is so often the case starting out. You want every word to shine and sparkle and dazzle. So you spend a day or a week or a month or forever trying to get that first chapter not just perfect, but perfecter.

In my opinion, this is a crutch. It’s an excuse. It’s a disease that infects all writers when they first start out. And it will eat you alive with a good chance that your writing will be damaged. It’s as easy a trap to fall into as a subprime, interest-only mortgage with nothing down. So how do you get past this nasty little hang-up?

First, you must convince yourself that NOTHING is perfect, especially when it comes to writing fiction. Now I’m not talking about spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax. Those are the rules of writing just like the speed limit and stop lights are the rules of the road. But those rules have NOTHING to do with perfection, only correctness. Perfection is a mental concept. It can never be achieved. There will always be room for improvement.

Next, you must allow yourself to write less-than-perfect prose the first time with the understanding that it’s more important to tell the story.

Another tip that helps is to come up with a set of REALISTIC goals that drive your writing. Your goals should be reasonable and obtainable. Make them short-term, easy and convenient. Such as: I will write 500 words per day. I will not look at what I’ve written until I complete 5000 words. I will not stop writing each day until I finish the current chapter. You get the idea. Make your goals reasonable so perfectionism doesn’t get in the way.

I believe that perfectionism creates doubt. Doubt smothers creativity. It slows down the stream of consciousness. Allow yourself to shape the story first no matter how rough, then carve out the details. And remember that you’re the only one demanding that your writing be perfect. Give yourself a break and just tell the story.

Harry Shaw, in his book Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them, said, "There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting." Science fiction master thriller writer Michael Crichton said: "Books are not written--they're rewritten."

So don’t worry about perfection. Work at telling a good story.

Do you suffer from wanting things perfect from the start? How do you get past it and complete your manuscript?


  1. I used to always go back and revise previous sections before I went on, trying to get them perfect, and I do think it stopped me from moving forward. And, after I finally finished the novel (which took forever since I was always editing) it was much harder to revise it -- the polished writing made it harder to figure out what to change, and it was harder to cut my "lovely" phrases.

  2. Good post Joe.
    I look at my first draft as an extremely detailed outline, sometimes a 70,000 word outline, that I just get out, onto paper, and then go back and start editing.
    That way, you know where the story is going and where you need to add red herrings and details when you rewrite.

  3. "I believe that perfectionism creates doubt. Doubt smothers creativity."

    So true! I know from extensive firsthand experience. Only perfectionism doesn't chase me in just the first draft but in the 6th, 7th, etc. I keep thinking, "If I revise it one more time I know I can make it better." UGH!

    It's a very nasty trap. I'm literally having to force myself this year to pry my fingers off the manuscript and let it go.

    I sure hope this gets easier with time.

  4. Good reminders, Joe. I do a fast edit of my previous day's work then move right on. I aim for a first draft, a second draft after reader notes, and a polish. (After that, of course, I work with the house). I can shamelessly admit that I provide a whole system for doing this in my revision book, so writers can follow a path without stressing about what to do.

  5. I see this all the time - new writers going over and over the first few chapters and then never progressing beyond that. I say write a first crap draft and then get rewriting - don't get stymied by 'perfection' otherwise it may stop your writing in its tracks!

  6. I’m a new writer and finally found my personal solution. Just tell the story and work out the subplots, dialogue undertones, foreshadowing, subtext, etc. later. How? I’m now (for the most part) writing in longhand. Yup, pencil and paper. No Internet distractions, no thesaurus – just me and my shadow under a tree. I do a brief edit when I type each scene into the computer for obvious issues (passive voice, repeated words, and issues like that). And then… I leave it and look forward to the next scene. A second quick “spot” edit is done from reader critique (so I don’t forget what to fix).

    I guess no one told me (or I didn’t listen). By the ½ way point, the story’s details had changed. I spent months “perfecting” the first 10,000 words for nothing, because they need to be edited again anyway.

  7. Great post, thank you!

    It's not just first time writers, but also professional writers like journalists or technical writers who know they may never get to go back and fix -- we need even more help than most :)

    Other things that can help include doing as much "prewriting" as you can, so you know where the hell you are going (this is, however, antithetical to some folks' process, so don't try it if the words "outline" or "character sketch" give you hives), and also recognizing the difference between a developmental edit and a polish edit. Never polish anything until after the developmental edits are done -- as others have noted, it's hard to let go of detrius if you've polished it :)

    Finally, I have a list of "mini-edits" I do -- one for dialog, one for adverbs, one for too many similes, one for cliche phrases, based on my experience receiving critiques--after awhile, you learn your bad habits, even if you can't break them. I do these at the end, and knowing I will do them eventually helps me not do them before they are necessary.

  8. Great post, Joe. In the first draft I revise a little as I go, often reading the previous day's writing before starting the current day. If I'm feeling stuck I sometimes tell myself, "If I don't write, I'll have nothing to rewrite." Then I push on. Thanks!

  9. When I'm drafting, I do a page a day, two on weekends. I read over yesterday's work before starting the new page, mainly to get my mind back into where I was. (i also suffer from a form of the verbal "I wish I thought to say that twenty minutes ago" syndrome, so serendipitous thoughts that came to mind after I was finished for the day can be added.)

    I never go back farther than that, waiting until the first draft is complete before doing any real rewriting.

  10. Great stuff in this post. I managed the cruddy first draft phase okay, but I get stuck in editing forever. I drift into line edits when I should be concentrating on plot edits and stuff like that. The editing phase is sort of like a black hole for me, and I don't know what reasonable goals I should set for it.

  11. I view my novels in terms of five drafts (not including the outline and synopsis). After I’ve completed the outline, the first draft is just the effort to get words on paper. I try to follow the outline, but I sometimes change the outline during this draft. I don’t, however, edit the first draft. Once I complete draft one I create a copy called draft two. In draft two I do major changes, moving scenes around, adding or removing characters, deleting or adding chapters or paragraphs. Then comes draft three in which I focus on how sentences sound, reading them aloud. At this point, I know they’re in the right place but my wording might be improved. In draft four all I’m really looking for are punctuation and word usage errors. If I find issues that should have been caught in one of the previous drafts I’ll go ahead and change it, but I’m not actively looking for those issues. When draft four is completed I have a manuscript suitable for shipping off to an agent or a traditional publisher. Draft five is the typesetting draft, so the edits here have more to do with the appearance of the book, but mistakes left from the previous drafts may still be caught here.

    I sometimes have multiple iterations of a draft. In my current first draft I decided on a major change before I completed it, so I created a copy, made some very broad changes and continued on. Other than something like that and quick changes as I type, I don’t edit the first draft. I keep telling myself that I’ll catch the mistakes in the next draft. I believe that saves me a great deal of time because I’m not perfecting stuff that will be deleted later.

  12. Wow, lots of great additional tips here. Thanks everyone for chiming in.

    Andrea, “killing our children” is so hard once we’ve come to live with them for a while. For me, if I really love a phrase, it’s probably overwritten and subject to the knife.

    Victoria, treating the first draft as a really detailed outline is a great way to get past the perfectionism disease. Good tip.

    B.K, I don’t know if it ever gets easier, but it can only get better if we all change our bad habits. Thanks for commenting.

    Jim, you are shameless, and that’s why we love you. All you guys need to check out Jim’s books. No matter where you are in your writing careers, you can learn something useful from Professor Bell.

    Good advice, Clare. Just tell the story. The rest will come later.

    Richard, that’s a deadly trap we’ve all fallen into. Things are gonna change so keep it simple and basic until you’re through the first draft.

    HBM, terrific additional tips. I love the idea of “prewriting”. Thanks for sharing.

    Paulgreci, your mantra is dead on. Thanks for putting it out to the rest of us. Hope you guys are listening.

    Lisa, editing is a tough job, but part of the job of writing. And because we all have our own issues, editing can differ for each of us. Here’s a tip: Check out Jim’s books.

    Now that’s a plan, Timothy. I would venture to say it would not work for everyone, but that’s what makes writing fiction so cool. We all (hopefully) can find a plan that we feel comfortable with and that works to produce a finished manuscript. I think yours could make a great “how to” article. Sometimes folks need a step-by-step set of guidelines to get started. Watch out, Jim. Someone is nipping at your heels.

  13. I take it for granted that my first draft is going to be terrible, awful, the worst thing I ever wrote. But by the time I've made my 15th or 20th pass through it, the writing will have vastly improved. So I don't edit at all until that awful draft is finished.

  14. I admit--it took me awhile to stop doing it when I wrote my first draft. Getting the story down is so much more important.
    I'm actually enjoying the revision part as I can rewrite it as much as my anal self wants:)

  15. It took me a long time to realize the mistakes I made in my writing until another author took a look at parts of my manuscript and advised me on changes I could make. Now I am rewriting to create a better story rather than revising over and over.

  16. Michelle, that’s really the best way to approach it.

    Terri, rewriting should be enjoyable. The bones are there. Start adding the meat.

    Jessica, a fresh set of eyes can always an “eye opener”.

  17. I do a cursory edit (sometimes that becomes 'cursery') of the pages where I previously stopped - then move on to the draft. Helps get the flow goin'. Not much editing until the 1st draft (story) is done. Being too picky too early bogs me down & gets me frustrated.

    Rewrites, killing the darlings, etc, doesn't bother me. Part of the experience.

  18. I have the opposite problem. I blast through the whole thing on the initial, edit once or twice then do a voice recording of it for podcast. Since it is my own story and I know it intimately, my mouth smooths over the mistakes as I act it out, often without my brain realizing what I just did.

    Once the recording is done, it is very difficult for me to pick it back up and clean the crazy manuscript, because my mind says "Well that was nice. Time to start the next story now, what?"

    Maybe that's how I can have a couple hundred thousand downloads of an audio book, but no sales of the same book.

    Sigh...I wish I had an spare extra smart brain that I could switch out for my daily one as needed. Instead of that beat up spare I leave in a jar on my shelf because it smells funny.


  19. I'm always dismayed by how what seemed so perfect yesterday is so perfectly flawed today. But I'm also good at procrastinating fixing it.