When Pretty Good Is Good Enough: Fighting Perfectionism in Your Writing (and Life in General)

Writers can be a pretty perfectionistic bunch. At least, that’s what people tell me. You wouldn’t know it from the writing I see on a daily basis. I just looked at a submission with THREE grammatical errors . . . in the first TWO sentences alone.

Still, in general, writers do tend to want their work to be as close to perfect as possible before they set it free into the world. Which is probably why so few writers ever actually manage to FINISH writing their books.

Perfectionism, though arguably an admirable quality, is the enemy of creativity and productivity.

How do I know? Because I, too, have often been guilty of wanting things to be too perfect—not just in my writing, but in ordinary life.

Take Christmas, for example.

We’ve passed Thanksgiving now and the halls are officially being decked for the season. It’s my favorite time of year. Even as a little girl, I always hoped Christmas would be picture-perfect, from the just-right placement of the mistletoe to the correct topper on the tree to the best playlist of carols to listen to while filling out your Christmas cards.

Every year, I dream of the perfect holiday. I have this vision in my head of a Norman Rockwell/Currier and Ives kind of Christmas, where people show up at my perfectly clean and well-decorated home with gifts and we all sit around a roaring fire drinking eggnog and singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” (in Latin, not English—that’s how specific my perfectionistic ideals are: They include mandatory dead languages).

Needless to say, I have never experienced the Christmas of my dreams.

Hell, I haven’t even come close.

But that’s not to say I haven’t had some lovely holidays, even some that other people would consider absolutely perfect. The thing is, when your vision is as ridiculously elaborate as mine, anything that exists in reality is bound to fall short.

It’s the same with writing.

I’ve heard it said that the book you imagine in your head—the one you can see so clearly, it’s practically a movie playing on a screen—will never be quite as perfect when you actually wrestle it into words and try to get it down on paper.

This may be the truest observation ever made about writing, and it’s a shame so few writers realize it.

The story you envision, the one you hope to write, will always be an unreachable ideal. To try to create something that can’t exist is to set yourself up for disappointment, or worse. Ever wondered why so many writers suffer from alcoholism, depression, and other mental illnesses? Our insane attempt to create perfection using the tools of an imperfect world may well be the root cause.

So, what’s my advice? That’s easy. It’s the same advice I finally gave myself this year as the holidays started approaching:

Sometimes, pretty good is good enough.

This year, I’m not going to try to force my friends and family to live out some fantasy Christmas with fancy clothes and expensive gifts and all the other unrealistic expectations that just end up making me and everyone else miserable.

I’ve even lowered my expectations when it comes to decorating. This sad little thing (made entirely out of the books I happened to have lying around) is my Christmas tree this year.

And it’s good enough.

And so is whatever you’re writing—at least for the first draft. Beyond that, helping you turn “good enough” into “good” is an editor’s job, not necessarily yours on your own as the writer.

Someone once said, “First drafts don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written.”

In other words, when it comes to getting your story down, you only need to get it written. Don’t worry about choosing the perfect word in every line; just tell us what happens in the story and worry about getting it “right” later.

When it comes to first drafts, anything that’s written down and not just floating around all perfect (and perfectly useless) in your head is good—and that’s good enough.

Here’s hoping your holidays—and your writing—will be “good enough” this year.

Share on