Monday Muse: Perfectionism Sucks

The perfect is the enemy of the good. That’s what our old buddy Voltaire said, and you have to admit, the man knew a bit about writing. One of the hardest things for me to overcome in my writing journey is the quest for perfection. I get so hung up on wanting to find the perfect word, use the perfect phrase, make the scene perfect, that I sometimes end up staring at my screen in despair. Nothing I write is as good as I want it to be, and that can lead to absolute paralysis.

I think Voltaire would have agreed with another one of my favorite writing gurus, the fabulous Anne Lamott. If you haven’t read her Bird by Bird, stop reading my little bloggery and go get it. Now. I’ll be here when you get back.

Ok, now that you’ve read dear Ms. Lamott’s thoughts on writing, you are familiar with a concept that changed my life: the Shitty First Draft. Apologies for the language, but seriously, I’m talking about first drafts that are beyond, bad, awful, or even crappy. The only word for them is the one Ms. Lamott chose.

See, you have to start with the idea that you can’t edit a blank page. Only by getting something, anything, down on paper (or up on screen) can you begin to write something that someday, with a lot of editing and love, may convince someone to spend several hours of their life reading it. Get the barest minimum down. Doesn’t matter how terrible it is. This first draft is, as 007 would say, for your eyes only. No one will ever see it, so break all the rules. Use the passive voice. Tell, don’t show. Head-hop like an Easter Bunny on meth. It matters not.

Don’t spend time thinking of the perfect word. Just write one that is close. Or do what I do – put an asterisk and note several words that come close to what you’re trying to say – you will go back and edit them into something usable. Don’t waste time trying to figure out names – once again, our old friend asterisk will mark the place where you need to plug in “hero’s cousin’s dog’s name.” Just write.

Try this and see how freeing it is. Sometimes my writing buddies reminisce about the good old days, when writing was fun, back before we’d gone to workshops, entered contests, and learned “da rules.” Da rules can take all the joy out of it for the writer, although I admit they do make things more appealing to the reader.

But your first draft should be fun. Ignore the rules. Just tell a cool story. Then, once you’ve got your reeking pile of doo-doo that vaguely resembles a first draft, go back and be ruthless. Make your high-school English teacher look like the reincarnation of e.e. cummings. Be the biggest, most anal-retentive enforcer of da rules on the face of the earth.

But your story will still have the fresh, inviting tone that only comes from letting your imagination run free. All you’ve done is taken a wild, untamed colt of a story and trained it to be a champion racehorse.

Go write something wild today. To paraphrase dear Scarlett, we’ll think about editing tomorrow.


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