What to Do with Perfectionism

By Rachelle Clifford

I am not a perfectionist. Really, I may be the furthest thing from one. Once I’ve achieved “good enough,” I’m ready to move on to the next task. But I think we all have a little perfectionism in us when it comes to the things we love.

I am co-writing a series of books with a dear friend of mine. When we first began writing together over ten years ago, it was for the joy of the experience. It was what we did together for fun, and it was easy. We wrote thousands of pages together and what amounts to four or five books’ worth of material. Then the game changed. We decided to take our pages upon pages of stories and turn them into a viable book.

blurry rain
Image by Igor Schubin from Pixabay

The task became harder, requiring more collaboration and precision. But our self-awareness changed as well, and as that happened, the perfectionism began to sink in. Looking back on the words that we had once carelessly written, we became disillusioned with our own writing. What had seemed wonderful and brilliant a year before now had too many flaws to reconcile.

In one sense, breathing in our weaknesses was a good thing. Our flaws cannot be corrected if we are not aware of them. It was validating to see our mistakes and derailments as proof that we had improved as writers. At the same time, the possibility of an endless stream of flaws was intimidating. By the time we finished the first draft of our first book, a debilitating question had cemented itself in my mind:

Will I ever be satisfied with my own writing?

If I am always improving, as I ever hope to be, will there be a time when I look back at my writing without wanting to change it? Without feeling like I could make it better? That it’s not good enough?

I am among the class of writers who struggle to finish a draft because we make the mistake of reading the previous chapters and feeling stuck. We see the flaws and the errors, or we have new ideas, so we go back and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until the task of completing a full fledged book feels so insurmountable that we are demoralized and ultimately give up.

To combat this defeating trend, my co-writer and I made a pact when we started writing our book that we couldn’t change anything we had written. We must write until the story was completed. If we had new ideas or saw anything we wanted to change, we would document it in a list for future edits and revisions. Halfway through our book, we made a decision about changing a major plot point. Still, we did not go back to revise. We wrote as if the story had already been changed, only noting it in our revision list. If you struggle like I do with consistent self-editing, try this method. Sometimes all you need is to make a conscious decision, and, for us, it worked.

Upon completion of the book and the altogether brief celebratory period, came the revisions. We started with reading through the entire book and inserting comments about what we would like to change. When it comes to revising, you need perfectionism. You need that picky eye and that drive to make your book the best it can be. What is debilitating during a draft becomes necessary for the revision. That perfectionism forced us to be organized and to stop saying, “I’ll fix that later.” We had to dig into those sections that we were unsatisfied with and root out the problem. Even still there were parts that we put off, recognizing that we didn’t know the answer. We let it ruminate, we discussed it, we waited patiently for the spark that we needed.

I hate to admit that I enjoyed getting to be a perfectionist more than I thought I would. It was remarkably satisfying to take those flawed pieces and work them until they became what they were meant to be for the story. Even still, that question would nudge the back of my mind:

Will I ever be satisfied with my own writing?

Despite feeling pleased with the work now, what if I look back on it a month from now, three months from now, a year from now, and find flaws? What if other people see flaws that I don’t see? What if it’s never good enough?

There is no such thing as perfect. That’s reality. So while it is okay to put on the costume of perfectionism for a little while, we must know when to take it off. At the end of our revisions, my co-writer and I recognized that we could read it again and again and make tweaks until the end of time. Our book was ready for someone else’s eyes to read it. And so we began our test reader phase. What a terrifying, eye-opening, and rewarding experience. We chose people we could trust to be honest, people whose opinions we valued, and, yes, maybe a few people who would give us the pat on the back we selfishly craved after years of hard work. And the feedback made me come to terms once again with the realization that there is no such thing as perfect.

Every person is unique with unpredictable and complex combinations and patterns of likes and dislikes. You cannot appease every reader to the fullest extent. Our readers were like magnets—some drawn and some repelled by the same thing. This imperfection felt like a success to me. The difference of opinions and reactions made the story feel all the more alive. We had created something real and dynamic and messy and imperfect like the story was always meant to be.

writing on a laptop
CC Image Credit: Reuben Ingber

But the perfectionist lens had to be put on again to correct the flaws we never would have identified without the help of our test readers. At the same time, I had to know when to take them off as we began drafting the second book. Beginnings are always the hardest for me. Regardless of the ideas and inspirations or the outlines and backgrounds to build off of, I still find myself staring at a blank screen with the same question in my mind:

Will I ever be satisfied with my own writing?

Am I using the knowledge that perfection is impossible as an excuse to write poorly? Am I giving up on always improving myself? Will this ever be good enough?

And once again, I come to an agreement with myself and my co-writer. We will get the story out. We won’t worry about the mistakes, we won’t go back and change anything. We will give each other the freedom to write crap. We’re not going to send each other our work with warnings of, “This is a really rough draft!” We have to get the story out. We can be perfectionists later. And then we will put it away again. And we will continue to rediscover the freedom of imperfection.

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