Is Trying Too Hard Destroying Your Writing?

Perfection wants to kill your writing

One of my favorite sayings goes like this:

Perfect is the enemy of done.

I can’t think of a sentiment more appropriate for writers.

How many of us who love writing have said, “Yeah, I have a novel, but it’s not finished”? 

Or maybe you’ve said: “I’ve been working on this blog post for a few weeks now. I really need to wrap it up!”

It occurred to me recently that submitting to perfectionism can threaten our entire identity as writers. Let me explain by discussing the definition of the word writer.

Who is a writer?

Maybe you’ve noticed that people fall into two camps when it comes to calling ourselves writers. In one camp, you have people like me. I believe that anyone who writes—no matter what they write—should call themselves a writer. As long as they think of themselves that way—and they actually write stuff—then cool, they’re a writer.

But there’s a second camp that has a different opinion. This second camp says that a person should only dare to call themselves a writer if they do it professionally. Unless someone gets paid to write (preferably full time), they don’t have any business using the title, according to this view. 

Now, I used to get angry with the second camp. I felt that drawing this line between people who write just for the love of it and those who make a living writing was arrogant and elitist. Recently, I’ve modified my opinion. Let me explain why.

Fiddling our way out of an avocation

Often (but not always) those of us who haven’t made a significant amount money writing are guilty of self-indulgent perfectionism. I am a member of this group. I admit it. I’m raising my hand. “Hello, my name is Adam, and I’m a perfectionist writer.” My perfectionism has held back my writing. It’s not a good thing. 

Maybe it’s true of you, too. Perhaps you have tinkered too long with a particular project because it hasn’t turned out the way you wanted it to, but you know full well that you need to let go and share it. Maybe you have something hidden on your hard drive or in a notebook that you know you should have shown to others a long time ago. 

I’m not talking about failed attempts at writing. We all have those, and they’re an important byproduct that we throw away, just like sawdust is a byproduct at a lumber mill. I’m not talking about failed attempts; I’m talking about the projects that we finish but refuse to share because of our pride. Instead, we hide these things and fiddle with them. We fiddle because we know that the product doesn’t live up to our expectation. We refuse to acknowledge deep down inside what we already know: that none of our creations will live up to what we dream they will be. This disturbs us, we don’t like it, and so we keep on fiddling.

The attitude of a committed writer

It occurred to me recently that a professional writer doesn’t have time for this. Unless a writer has had so much success that money is no longer an object (a J. K. Rowling, say), the professional must keep churning out content. When the deadline arrives, they send it off, ready or not. Because the professional writer can’t fiddle with their work past a certain point, they learn how to be comfortable with sharing product that doesn't meet their expectations. They even learn (gasp) how to cope with negative feedback from readers. 

This difference plays into the two definitions of the term writer. The reason some people are so adamant that only a professional should refer to themselves by that term has something to do (at least sometimes) with this distinction in attitude. Perhaps there’s still a degree of elitism, but the professional, by virtue of resisting perfectionism, has in a sense earned the right to a different title. 

Done is even better than perfect

Regardless of how you define the word writer, I hope you will think carefully about how perfectionism impacts your work. This has been important for me recently. I am realizing that even though I’ve spent over a year exploring the development of writing routine, I am still wrestling with a strong propensity for perfectionism. Recently, it’s held back my progress on my book. It’s also limited my work on my blog and the email workshop that I send to readers. This needs to change. I’m being honest here in the hope that openness will lead to progress, both for me and for anyone else who needs this reminder.

I leave you with another quotation, this one from Papa, the masterful Hemingway:

If anybody deserved to call himself a master, it was Hemingway, yet he didn’t. Remember this axiom. Scrawl it into your memory. Don’t allow perfectionism to convince you otherwise. Don’t fiddle with your writing. Commit to finishing so that you can move on to the next thing. Swallow your pride, share what you’ve written, and grow.