On December 1, I turned in an assigned writing piece on deadline. I think I even turned it in early in the day, pretty much a miracle considering I’d come in late for that monthly assignment far too many times in the past. I was so proud of the accomplishment I mentioned it to my editor, who promptly gave me the “attagirl” I was looking for.
But the attagirls quickly turned into, “I’m sure this piece could work somewhere … but not for us. Unless you work at it a little more.” I was disappointed. I liked what I had written. But once I reread it and started into revisions, I realized that it just wasn’t ready for publication. I had turned in an unfinished piece.
This is one of the hazards of being a freelance writer. Lots of deadlines means constant writing, and if I’m not careful, I begin to write too quickly to really give the pieces the time they deserve. Ultimately, I want to be the writer who hits deadlines and turns in high quality work. But first, I have to back things up a bit and slow down.
In The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, Louise DeSalvo talks about this dilemma many writers find themselves in. We want the work to go quickly. We get discouraged if it takes too long. Generally, we expect too much too soon out of the writing process.
“Trying to work too quickly, trying to work in too polished a way too quickly, expecting clarity too soon, can set up up for failure,” DeSalvo writes.
Sometimes I see this from editing clients who are ready for me to check the grammar and spelling in their work when really the book isn’t well organized or the premise is off. In fiction, it’s fine to add lots of description and detail but not if the plot is too weak to support the book. There will be a time and place for proofreading and polishing, but often that’s not until the 4th or 10th or 25th draft. It may take that long before the work is ready.
“The biggest problem many writers (beginning and otherwise) face is that they are seeking perfection,” writes Alice LaPlant in The Making of a Story. “They want what they write to be smooth and polished and meaningful and affecting from the very first word, and unfortunately that is simply not to be (or not very often). This desire (and it’s a strong one) to excel right from the starting gate can have serious consequences.”
On the one hand, this need for immediate perfection can cause writers to say “I’m done” much too soon. Much like the draft I turned into an editor … on deadline, but far from finished. On the other hand, sometimes the need for immediate perfection paralyzes us, and we can’t finish even a sentence, much less a whole manuscript, because we won’t move forward until each word is right.
How to we address both sides of the perfectionist’s coin?
First, remember that writing is a process. Expect at least a few drafts. Give yourself time to get to the best version of your work.
Second, remember that writing is a process. On the first draft, tell yourself that it’s only a draft. No need for perfection; that will come later. Then, just get the words and thoughts down. You’ll have time to make them perfect in all the drafts after that.
It’s a new year. We all want to accomplish a lot in our writing lives. So let’s start the year out slow.