That old enemy, Perfectionism

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    Hi all,

    Going through my alternate history Civil War novel and revising it, I’m finding myself zeroing in on sentences, fixating over how they’re phrased, and most of the time thinking this is too dry, too simply or clunkily phrased, this won’t do, etc. etc. And so I find it hard to get work done, wanting to stay away, although I did make good progress last night.

    So I’m looking up some masters for inspiration–Tolkien, Thomas Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King. I’m reminded of when I first saw, years ago, that when King says something in a story, he doesn’t try to be fancy about it or anything; he simply says it. And it works. (This was when I read his story “Word Processor of the Gods.”) And I’m currently listening to Suzanne Collins’ Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes on audio, and she does the same thing.

    I’m curious, how does everyone with perfectionism if/when it hits?

    Tony Lyttle

    I’m not sure you can, or should, avoid perfectionism. Yes, by all means, when you are scribbling down your first draft, avoid it certainly. But not when doing your major edit. (You said ‘revising’ so maybe you’re not editing yet.) But when you are, it’s the perfect word or phrase that you’re searching for and nothing less should satisfy.
    Those writers you mention who ‘just say it’ probably got to what reads so simply now, after three or four re-writes!
    But I think I know what you mean about ‘early perfectionism’; it can hold you up if you let it. I’m afraid I succumb to it, myself. I tend to edit as I go – write a page or so and then read it through, chopping and changing, if necessary. Then at the start of each writing session I read what I wrote during the previous session to get myself back into the flow, as it were. I’ll make further edits during this, if I spot anything that doesn’t sound just right. It does mean, when I come to do the final full edit, there’s not as much needs changing than there would have been. There’s still plenty, though 😉


    Aaaargh! Just wrote a reply and it’s thrown me off and lost it all! Will post again tomorrow…

    Mad Iguana

    Perfectionism is a curse. But the desire for perfection is necessary, if we’re ever to get to be as good as we can be.
    Every time I re-read anything I’ve ever written, I find myself changing a word here, a phrase there. A sentence can be cut completely and rewritten, and in the next rewrite, it comes back again.
    I found comfort in the quote from someone who said that a book/story/piece of writing is never finished, only abandoned.
    I think you have to do it, you have to make it all as good as it can be, but there comes a point when you have to recognise that the change might not actually be improving anything. It might be a better word HERE, but it might disrupt the rhythm you’ve been establishing THERE.
    I wouldn’t worry about simplicity or complexity either – that depends on your style. Make it you, your sentences, your words, and make it the best version of that you can be, and it will be good.
    And when you find yourself agonising over this word or that word – if the difference isn’t so big that you know immediately which one works, then maybe it doesn’t matter.


    Mad has touched on what I posted (and lost!) yesterday.

    Sometimes, I think we confuse perfectionism with finding our own, unique writer’s voice. We try so hard to make it sound ‘right’ that we forget we’re trying to express something of who we are, who our characters are, within the world we’ve created. Of course we want to make our stories the best we can, but they will never be perfect. Even having published several novels, I still see things in the ‘finished’ books that I think “should’ve written x instead,” or see typos – in a recent example, I was longlisted in a comp for a short story. Read it through, and realised there were two different ways I’d spelled the MC’s name…throughout!

    I think this comes easier with confidence though – in yourself as a writer, and in the writing you produce.

    One thing I have personally found helpful is to stick to a ‘big picture’ point of view until later in the writing process. By which I mean I rarely allow myself to go back and tweak anything until I have got to the end of the story. That way, you don’t keep switching between your creative brain – the one which comes up with the scenes and descriptions and beautiful ideas – and your editing brain – the one that tells you you need to tweak that sentence, or completely rewrite this heavy description, or make that dialogue more believable – too often. For me, that really impedes my flow, and I’ve discovered that for me, getting things to flow initially means I can polish up much more easily when that time comes.


    Am I allowed to agree with all of you? When a writer like Stephen King just says something and it works, it’s because he is utterly confident with his voice. I’m not his biggest fan, but I have read a lot of his work and I do appreciate the extraordinary flow of his prose. I’m willing to bet he’s not on the heavy side when he edits.

    I’m terrible. A sentence can take me an hour, sometimes. And then I have to re-edit it. That’s no way to write, so I’ve come to an agreement with myself to just get the words down as fast as I can and edit later. Sometimes I stick to it.

    It’s why there are so many short story specialists in the world of writing.

    Andrew Bruton

    Hi all, I’m not yet fully versed in the ways of the craft and have wavered between perfectionism and writing tens of thousands of words without any edits. I certainly prefer the latter, but the former seems to bring something to the table.

    I started a novel back in 2013 as I managed a hotel in the Peruvian Andes, and all these years later I’m finally going to have a crack at finishing it. At various points, over the past 7 years, I have tinkered and have managed to get a lot written, but I’ve found that inspiration dried up as soon as I started doing edits seriously. I foolishly started editing things before I had completely finished the first draft and I think that completely wrecked my concentration. I have been too scared to finish it since.

    I am now ready for some brutal writing and then some brutal editing. So I don’t think (with my work-rate) that I’ll be anywhere near to flirting with perfectionism this time.


    Everybody has their own way of working; mine is very like Tony’s above. The important thing, I believe, is to find out which way suits you best, and not put yourself in a creative strait-jacket by blindly following some ‘rule.’ What works for some people may not work for you.

    For example, we keep hearing ‘cut, cut, cut’ when it comes to editing, but I always end up with a skinny first draft and add to it. I don’t seem to be able to help it: it’s just the way I work.

    And the character questionnaire that some will tell you is so essential for getting to know your characters: I find that rather like painting by numbers, stifling imagination rather than aiding it.

    But yes, perfectionism may be your enemy when you’re drafting, but it’s absolutely essential when you’re editing.


    Thanks for all your replies! They are refreshing, helpful, and sharpen my perspective on things. They also bring things to mind that I’ve read in the past, like Ray Bradbury’s dashing off the whole first draft with the creative side of his brain, shutting off the editor side until the draft’s finished and cooled off.

    Dean Koontz, who describes himself as OCD, writes one page, then revises and polishes it until it’s *exactly* the way he wants it, before allowing himself to move on to the next.

    And in Stephen King’s book _On Writing,_ he includes part of a first draft that he revised with a pencil, showing what he changed and cut. And, not surprisingly, it wasn’t all that much.

    Writing a first draft is a luxury. I scribble it in a notebook, never worrying about the final product because I always know I’m going to go over it several times (often many times) first. The most difficult time is the 2nd and 3rd drafts, when I have to be all editor and very little writer. Once I’m over that hump, for the final polish when I just have to tweak it a little here and there, the story becomes fun again.

    For this Civil War novel, I wrote the first draft years ago, worked out the major kinks, had it critiqued, and shouldn’t have that far now to go. But my writing strikes me as dry, even amateurish. More than anything, it’s probably just a case of my fixating so much on all the trees that I’m missing the forest.


    The character questionnaire. I’m with Richard. I don’t doubt they’re great if you find them useful but for me they are disheartening.

    The other ‘favourite’ which sends my spirits groundwards is the implication, sometimes a very thinly-veiled instruction, that creative prose should learn from film or TV. If studying that medium helps fire creativity, terrific. But surely the important things to consider are prose’s ability to do things visual media can’t, and – not least if you want to be published – the zeitgeist. Screen drama may reflect the current mood or sometimes lead it but the mood is still a separate and wider thing.

    Sorry that sounds a bit tub thumpy. It’s a little beef of mine which everyone is free to ignore 🙂


    I once tried out a character questionnaire from Emma Darwin’s blog on a principal character of mine, and my answer to seven out of twenty-one questions was ‘Dunno’ and/or ‘Does it really matter?’ Some of the other answers were pretty vague. But while writing the story I never had any difficulty in imagining what she’d say or do.


    Doug – if your writing strikes you as ‘amateurish’, it’s probably a good thing; it means that, in the time since you originally wrote the novel you have grown and developed as a writer and are already – subconsciously – aware of it.

    It’s very hard to do, but have you considered completely rewriting the story from scratch? It’s something I did with a story after a break of about ten years…I’d developed my style and rewriting gave me an opportunity to write the story again with the benefit of all that I’d learned in the meantime. It sounds really daunting, and is probably a last resort kind of thing! But for me, in that instance, it worked better than trying to tweak sections.


    Rewriting it has been on the back of my mind. I’ve felt this way about some of my short yarns before, and rewrote them into stories that were published and I’m now proud of. I didn’t think of it as rewriting, more like “extensive revisions,” maybe because that doesn’t sound so daunting as rewriting. That’s probably what I’ll end up doing with the novel.

    I haven’t seen that character questionnaire, but I’d like to check it out just out of curiosity.


    I like character questionnaires but I don’t do them slavishly. If there are questions where I don’t know the answer and I don’t care, I leave them. However other questions may provoke a stream of thoughts that go off on a tangent and I follow them. I find they are a useful tool (and that is all) when I want to work on a particular character and help to bring things I know unconsciously into focus. Occasionally they throw up delightful nuggets of ideas that are tremendously useful.

    there are lots of character questionnaires around. I personally haven’t found any particular one to be better than another. Let me know if you can’t find them and I’ll send you a couple of links.


    An update. I’ve continued the revisions, but slowly, slowly. I’m now a hundred pages from the end, and I’ve decided enough of the nonsense, I’m getting all through it this weekend come hell or high water. Feel free to hold me to it.

    Will check back in Sunday night, one way or the other.

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