IWSG: Perfection Defection

IWSG: Perfection Defection

1st Wednesday of the month is Insecure Writers Support Group. It’s a blog hop where you post about the joys and difficulties of being a writer.

When I was a kid, I was forever writing stories, yet my table remained littered with empty notebooks. If I made a single mistake, I’d tear out the page, throw it away and start writing all over again. If halfway down the page I spelled a word wrong, I’d tear it out and rewrite it all again. And again.

Perfectionism. It’s a heavy, ugly word that sits like a brick wall between creativity and achievement. I’ve been so afraid of mistakes that my work sucked for much longer than it needed to. It’s supposed to be bad at first. You suck, you learn, you suck less. That’s the natural order. But I rarely wrote anything new and kept turning in the same crap to teachers and writing contests, waiting for someone to recognize my genius.

A college prof called me on it, pointing out that I was lazily turning in old stories and even after feedback, I turned them in again, unedited. She said I would never be a great writer if I didn’t give up my fear ofmistakes. She was right. When I wrote my first manuscript, it was dreadful. Then I wrote another and it sucked too. With each one I’ve gotten better. Then I formed a writing group, took a lot of painful crit and got MUCH better. 

 The other day, I re-read a blog post by Kristen Lamb entitled, Is Your Subconscious Mind Setting You Up for Failure? and found it resonated with exactly what I wanted to say today.

The reason perfectionism is particularly nefarious is perfection is an impossible goal. Thus, when we buy into perfectionism we’re automatically setting ourselves up for failure, disappointment, self-loathing and neuroses. Perfection can’t be attained so the goal can never be reached…  Striving for excellence? Totally different story. We can be excellent without being “perfect.” Excellence ships. Excellence has deadlines. I can finish and let go of an excellent book. A perfect book? Good way to still be editing the same book for a decade.

Perfectionism is qualitative, where as excellence is QUANTITATIVE. We can’t measure an imaginary ideal. We can, however measure PROGRESS.

— Kristen Lamb

That is it in a nutshell. Perfectionism will lead you nowhere.You’ll always be competing with others and coming up short. Learn from my mistakes. Don’t be a slave to the clean page, terrified that any mistake or criticism is a sign that you aren’t good enough.

You’ve got shit to say and it can’t wait for perfection.

So go out and write. Scribble in the margins, spell things horriafacallly wrong. Make beautiful mistakes and learn from them.

Perfection is a path to nowhere. It’s artistic stagnation. The path to excellence is paved with crappy first drafts. So write toward excellence, not perfection.

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Charity Bradford

    LOVE this! My perfectionism revealed itself at the end of the writing process. There was no problem writing crappy drafts. I got that part down! Where it started to hurt me was revision after revision. It was never good enough. Even after working with an editor I knew it wasn't perfect. Luckily, that editor took it out of my hands. I cringe when I look back at it now. And I let it cripple me for a while. I felt like I'd let my characters down by letting a flawed book out into the world. I couldn't write the next book in her story I was so ashamed.

    There came a time when I had to reach the same conclusion you did. Freaking out over the lack of perfection was getting me nowhere. I still had a story to tell. Better to tell it with flaws than not at all. I'm happy to report the first draft is done and the two books after are plotted out on beat sheets. Forward motion of any kind is better than nothing while waiting for perfection.

    Thanks for sharing the quote! Here's a link to my IWSG post– My Writing Journey

  2. Birgit

    I don't suffer from this:) I have seen my mom, my hubby and others suffer and they become upset, distressed and frustrated. At the same time their work is amazing!!!! My mom created Faberge style eggs and created this all by hand-a true artist. My hubby creates amazing works of art. A true artist no matter what the field suffers from this trait so embrace this issue as your work and others will be amazing even if you think it is not. I believe mine is good but not amazing. I love what you wrote here and hope others find this and read it as it is perfect how you described this issue called perfectionism

  3. Lucinda Whitney, Author

    What an excellent post. I needed this today. It's hard to face one's problems and letting is even harder sometimes.

  4. Joylene Nowell Butler

    We see success stories by individuals who seem just as normal as we are, and we wonder, Why them and not me? It's human nature. The older you get the more you realize perfection is over related. Great post! Happy IWSG.

  5. VR Barkowski

    Amazing quote. I have that perfectionism thing, too. I know it leads nowhere, so I try to get work off my desk as quickly as possible. If I finish a chapter, off it goes to my critique partner. Then I don't allow myself to revisit the chapter until my draft is complete. Intellectually, I realize perfectionism is a waste, whereas a day with several thousand new words under my belt makes me feel great, but I'm still a victim.

    VR Barkowski

  6. J.L. Campbell

    Hi, Christina,
    I think may of us suffer from this sydrome. Used to be, I couldn't write without correcting the last chapter. I still do that, but I can print and edit AND move on without editing the soft copy.That's progress for me. 🙂

  7. Elizabeth Hein

    You are not alone in the need for perfection. I have a picture frame above my desk holding the words – DARE TO SUCK. I need the constant reminder to take chances, try new things, and keep working. I find writing messy drafts in cheap notebooks very freeing as well. You can always turn to a new page and start a paragraph over.

  8. Michael Ignacio

    Thank you for your inspiring words. This reflects the same great advice you posted on my website. 🙂

  9. Michelle Wallace

    I love this post!
    We should strive for excellence – NOT perfection!

  10. eclecticali

    Yes! I long ago gave up on perfectionism, though am still plagued by "good-enough-ism." Unfortunately, I never had that college prof call me out on my writing, I'd get the feedback in Fiction Workshop classes and then just keep plowing ahead, not going back to make changes… so it took me much longer to realize just how important it is to keep going back, to keep revising and to learn to dig out the productive and useful feedback from critique groups. I'm certainly not saying I've gotten it right yet, but much further along the way.

  11. annehiga

    YES!!! So true! I'm still getting over a particular LONG writing assignment where I basically didn't care anymore. I was like (honestly, without saying it to the people) what is the bare minimum I can do and still get by. That same feeling (which in that case I believe was somewhat justified due to the situation) crept into my other writing. I think a lot of it was the situation of an impossible ideal filled with contradictions among other things (which would make sense if I gave the context but don't want to talk down about specific people) that I knew I'd NEVER meet no matter what. So I wanted to settle for workable. Now that I'm writing in a freer context, I can set my own, reasonable goals – of wanting to write really great copy, but I've felt like there's this drag holding me back and didn't know what it was. This feeling like – I need to measure up (to what???) and this isn't real writing.
    Thanks for putting a finger on this feeling I've had. I think that's a big part of it.

  12. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    Love this – "We can be excellent without being perfect." Definitely something I'm going to keep in mind, maybe push out those perfectionist tendencies once and for all. 🙂

    Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

  13. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    Excellence is a much better goal. I admit I'm a bit of a perfectionist when writing, which is yet another reason I'm a slow writer. But I've learned to slave over something for only so long before continuing forward.

  14. Loni Townsend

    I've been struggling with perfectionism a lot lately. I've tried to back away, tell myself it's okay, but the disappointment still wallows in my gut. Therefore, it doesn't see the light of day, and I scrap it for something new. *sigh* Someday…


  15. Patricia Lynne

    I had a friend who started over whenever she made a mistake on something she was writing down, but she wasn't a writer. It was just lists she had to write. Anyways, knowing I can never be perfect with my writing was something I read about a lot when I started writing. It something every writer needs to learn. We try our best, but at some point and especially with publishing, we have to be satisfied and let the story into the world.

  16. olgagodim

    Great post. Yes, it takes courage to step away from your story and say: that's it, I'm done. It's not perfect but I've done my best and it's time to let it go. But I guess it's the only way to progress for any of us.
    The trick is to know when that moment arrives. How long should I tinkle with my story before moving on?

  17. Jennifer Chandler

    Oh how I needed to read THIS!! In everything: writing, life, artistic pursuits, I have always gone after perfection. When I can't reach it (which I never can) I clam up and stop. No wonder I never get anything finished!! Thank you for this! Oh, and the phrase"You've got shit to say and it can't wait for perfect", I'm writing that down and tacking it to my wall! ~ Jen

  18. Crystal Collier

    I used to cling to that ideal too, but it was when I entered a small contest with absolutely no expectations that everything changed. My work was far from perfect, but I won. WON. And then the publishing world opened up. I think the biggest lesson came after publication with reviews. Even if you've got a work out that's amazing, there will be people it just doesn't resonate with. Perfection doesn't exist.

  19. Brandon Ax

    Great post. I actually liked to save my old stuff whether writing or drawings. It is nice to look back and see the growth.

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