Author’s update: This post has been so tremendously popular that it inspired me to pen an entire book of writing advice. For authors seeking help in silencing self-doubt and overcoming writer’s block, check out my bestselling guide Write like a Beast.
Artists are a weird breed. We love our work, but we loathe whatever our hands create. We see both the potential and the absolute failure of our works.
And this problem never ends. The moment we learn to correct one problem, we spot another glaring imperfection we don’t know how to resolve. Even the masters are tormented by their own obvious ineptitude.
How do we prevent this mindset from stopping us? Today we’re going to investigate a writer’s worst enemy, perfectionism, and how to defeat it.
The torment of imperfection
Authors who love their craft spend time agonizing over every word and phrase. We alternate between pouring out the words and cringing at what we just wrote. When we get into the groove and write 5,000 words in an afternoon, we turn around and immediately want to read them to see if they’re really as brilliant as we remember.
Spoiler alert: They’re not.
Too many authors, especially first time authors who have yet to publish, allow themselves to get bogged down in this editing-as-they-go mess. They rationalize to themselves that if they edit as they go along, somehow the final editing process will be so much shorter.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
When I coach authors to stop this destructive habit, I usually hear some variation on the same thing: “But that means leaving garbage sentences on the page. When I edit, I’ll have to rewrite everything anyway.”
In actuality, your perfectionism is the reason you’ll never finish your first draft and will likely abandon writing altogether. By allowing your imperfections to haunt you, you’re insuring you’ll never allow yourself to complete the book. Which means no publishing. Which means more burning shame in the future as you never accomplish your dream.
But how do we get past this gnawing perfectionism?
Trusting the process
Authors need to have a defined process for how to deal with perfectionism. If your expectation is that you’re going to write the whole first draft and immediately publish your book, then you’re dead wrong.
Take my own process, for example. I’ve written about it extensively and many authors have taken to social media to rave about the exercises I designed. In that linked article, I break down my own process which goes something like this:
- Write one draft uninterrupted with no editing.
- Edit first time.
- Edit second time.
- Beta readers.
- Edit third time.
- Send to professional editor.
- Edit fourth time.
When you beak the process down in such a thorough format, it becomes easy to see where you clean up the mistakes from your first rushed draft. In fact, the first draft is almost guaranteed to be crap. That’s because most authors forget what the purpose of a first draft is.
The first draft of any work is simply you dumping a mass of clay on a table to work with later. That’s it. You can make sure the clay is the right color, and try to keep out any stray hairs or dirt, but all the first draft should be is a lump of workable material you’re going to shape later.
Other art mediums often start with the materials already provided. Sculptors don’t usually mine their own stone. Carpenters rarely harvest their own wood. But authors must create their raw materials from scratch.
The first draft of your work is simply that: Creating the material you’re going to shape later.
By putting the issue in such a simple light, and by trusting the process, writing becomes far easier, doesn’t it? Don’t agonize over making sure your clay is perfectly formed. Just get some clay on the table and shape it later. Keep in mind the shaping time is coming, it’s just not time yet. You need to create that raw material first.
Now, authors, get out there and stop sabotaging your first drafts by editing as you go. Dump the clay on the table first and worry about shaping it when the time comes. Believe me, you’ll spend plenty of hours in editing. Just allow yourself to make that clay first.