Perfectionism is overrated.
You probably already know this. You probably know someone who sometimes focuses so much on doing things perfectly that they end up doing worse than they would have otherwise.
Maybe that person is you.
The problem with perfectionism in writing is that there is plenty of room for making mistakes, and not much for trying to avoid them. There is a difference between carefully combing through a finished piece for errors and avoiding writing at all because you’re afraid of “doing it wrong.”
But if you can’t write perfectly, what CAN you do?
You can aim to always do better.
One of many things successful writers have in common is that they are not afraid of imperfection. In fact, they almost deliberately seek it out.
You’ll never write anything if you try to write perfectly. Right now I am writing this post feeling cold, tired, hungry, a little anxious, and very much wanting to crawl under a blanket and not do any work. Part of me is worried that writing a blog post right now is a bad idea, that I won’t do it right, that I’ll say the wrong thing, or that it won’t be good enough and people won’t read it and I’ll have to sit here wondering why.
I hesitate — well, hesitated — because I know that in the physical and mental state I am currently in, I will most likely not be able to write a perfect blog post. It’s what I wish I could do. I wish I could sit down and come up with a good idea and crank out 500 words about it in 20 minutes and schedule it and go find a blanket to hide under.
But I’m jugging a very busy schedule at the moment and this is the only space in my day that I have to write this post. And I don’t have any other choice but to write it today — it goes up tomorrow. Plus, I know that if I wait any longer, my motivation and confidence will only decrease, and it will be a thousand times harder to write this four hours from now than it is at this moment.
If I was really concerned about writing the “perfect” post, I would put it off until early tomorrow morning, when I am generally my most motivated, energized, and productive. But there isn’t time or space for that. Not today.
So I’m probably going to have to write something that isn’t great today. Maybe you’re reading this now and thinking to yourself, “Wow, this is the worst post I’ve ever read on this blog.” You’re allowed to think that. I’m not going to take it personally. Guess what? I could have written nothing at all. But instead I chose to try something, and maybe it turned out okay. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe that’s not for me to decide.
Sitting around waiting until “the time is right” to write something error-free is the most efficient way to waste valuable writing time. Don’t wait. Don’t wonder why you’re not getting anything done when you can just sit down and start writing something. You are a human. You don’t do anything perfectly. And that’s okay. Write now, worry later.
Making mistakes is how we set goals and figure out how to improve. If you did everything perfectly the first time, you would never learn how to do it the most efficient and effective way. It’s a good thing most authors don’t get a book deal on the first try. Otherwise, what would their motivation be to keep writing and revising and reading and learning until they finally submitted something that caught someone’s attention for all the right reasons?
I don’t know about you. But whenever I fail, I learn. I learn not to rush through something just to get it done and move on to the next thing. I learn that the more time I spend thinking deeply about things on my own, the easier those thoughts are going to be to put into words later. I learn that just because people don’t care about me on an individual level (you don’t even know me and I don’t know you, I don’t take that personally either) doesn’t mean I can’t use my own experiences to help other people see their own versions of the world differently.
As a writer you’re going to mess up. You’re going to say the wrong thing and you’re going to unintentionally send the wrong message and it’s going to feel like the whole world is out to get you because of that. But anyone who ridicules you for making a mistake is just bitter because they haven’t forgiven themselves for their own imperfections. That’s their problem, not yours.
Every time you write or submit or show off something that’s imperfect, treat it as an opportunity to set improvement goals for yourself. Maybe next time you want to write something that sounds less like another author’s style and something closer to your own. Maybe in the future you want to write a story that “goes there,” that doesn’t shy away from the deeper things, that doesn’t stray from the topics people want to read about simply because you aren’t sure if people will actually want to read about them.
Always aim to be better. And not just because you want your audience to like you, but because your audience deserves the best you can give them. And changing what “best” looks like with each new piece of writing — in a positive way — is one of the most promising signs of growth and success in any working writer.
What’s the point of trying to be a better writer? What’s the point of changing the way you do things when the way you’re doing them now is perfectly comfortable? What’s the point of caring so much about what other people say if their opinions don’t, in the end, matter? Why should you aim to be better when it already seems like you’re doing just fine?
The answer is simple: You should aim to improve your writing because that’s what skilled, successful writers do. And you will never be able to catch up or keep up with the world’s most successful writers if you continue to do the same things over and over, never seeking to grow, only paying attention to doing what you have always done.
Don’t be that kind of writer. Don’t be the writer who says “This worked for me once so it will continue to work again.” I understand stubbornness — I come form a long line of headstrong, creative overachievers. But that refusal to be better than your past self, in any capacity, isn’t going to get you where you want to go. It’s only going to leave you frustrated and bored and unmotivated.
Why not shoot for the other extreme, then? Because perfection isn’t just unrealistic. It’s destructive. It doesn’t matter how “good” of a writer you are, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you think setting the bar that high for yourself every single time is going to help you reach your full potential.
What’s important is that you establish an end goal — get a novel published, for example — and work toward that goal in small, calculated stages. You try to do things a little better every time you sit down to work on that book or submit those query letters or negotiate that contract. You set reasonable goals and work toward them one by one. You try to do better without being terrified of messing up.
It’s a lot to try to balance all at once. But doing so could change your whole world — well, at least some of your world.
Don’t aim so high that you miss the mark every single time. Chances are, you’re the one setting the parameters of that mark, and you have just as much power to lower it as you do in keeping it just out of reach.
A successful writer recognizes that they are flawed, their work is messy, and that they won’t always do things right the first time. They understand that sometimes their blog posts aren’t great and that’s just something they’re going to have to deal with later.
The next one will be better.
That’s how you go. Always forward. Always knowing you can do better every time you try.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.