Against Perfectionism


Many of the writers I work with fuss with their current story, poem, or essay forever, before moving on to the next story, poem, or essay they want to write.  “I just want to read through one more time,” more than a few of my clients insist. “I want to be 100 percent sure before I send it out.”

Now, I’m all for revision. In fact, I often insist that writing is 85 percent about revision.  But once you’ve reviewed your piece for structure, full development of key moments, syntax and word choice, there’s not much point to reading it one more time.  A writer can reread anything she’s written and peck around, changing a word here or there, transforming a comma or two into dashes, reordering this sentence and that.  But this is nitpicking, not revising.  It’s falling prey to the natural anxiety any of us has about whether or not our latest creation is “good enough.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand perfectionism, the urge to obsess over every single word in a piece of writing.  I did this in college.  But I was a blocked writer then, and didn’t  realize that if I stopped tormenting myself, stopped wringing my hands over each word and every comma, my writing would flow much more smoothly.

When I went to see David Sedaris read in San Francisco  years ago, I chuckled as I watched him editing the piece he was reading.  I do the same.  Going back over any of my published essays or books, I inevitably wonder why I chose certain words, or expressed some of my ideas the way I did. Writing is never perfect.  It’s an art, and as an art, subject to human imperfection.

None of the writers I know or work with take their writing lightly.  Most of them put everything they have into everything they write. And the seasoned writers accept that what they send out for submission is in no way perfect.  They know that submitting itself is a process. That this process involves a slew of rejections.  And that somewhere down the line, they can take another hard look at what they are submitting, to see if it would benefit from additional revisions.  The advantage here is that time creates the distance necessary to evaluate writing objectively.

A poet I know, once he has a batch of poems ready for submission, sends it out to at least 15 magazines at once.  Then, if the poems are rejected by every single designated magazine, he decides it’s time to take another look at what he’s written.  Often, he tells me, the poems emerge from this process substantially transformed.

I think this poet has the right idea.  Instead of aiming for perfect, decide when your story, poem, or essay is plenty good. Then send them off or put them away, and move on.  You can always take another look in the future.  And by then, you’ll not only have additional pieces in your files, but you might have the distance necessary to move that earlier piece of writing that much closer to perfection.


Detail of A Sign




2 thoughts on “Against Perfectionism”

  • I like the idea that the poet has! I recently reread a piece from years ago that was too wordy and I finally had to give in to that it was almost 15 years old and I was a pretty undeveloped writer back then. So I felt better that I’d improved. I put the piece back in the cloud and smiled.

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