Confession of a Perfectionist Writer

I have a confession. I’m a perfectionist.

Isn’t that what writers aspire to become? The kind of writers who can spew perfectly-composed prose, elegant plots, and compelling characters right from their fingertips, as if every time they touch the keyboard another gem gets added to the page.

I’d like to be one of those writers. Hell, I’d like to meet one of those writers! Because the truth is, very few people can write beautiful stories the first time around. Even the greatest writers of all time have gone through drafts.

J.R.R. Tolkien (image from Wikipedia)
J.R.R. Tolkien (image from Wikipedia)

When I was a high school senior, I was lucky to go to Marquette University and see some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s manuscripts on display. I was astonished to learn that some of the characters we know and love didn’t start off with the same names we know them today (I seem to recall Gandalf was one of them). I was even more amazed to see lines scratched out and scribbles in the margin. Tolkien! Even a man that brilliant didn’t get it right the first time around.

As you work on refining your skill as a writer, you trick yourself into thinking you can get it right the first time, every time, and then get disappointed when things fall flat. That’s where a lot of people give up, in fact. If you keep at it, you realize that writing is all about drafts and editing.

Once you come to that point as a writer, and fully embrace the concept of ripping apart all of your drafts, tossing countless words and phrases to the proverbial cutting room floor, something happens.

Hint: It’s not that you become a great writer and start publishing everything. Oh, no, it’s never so simple.

What happens is that you become obsessed with editing, and refining, and getting it perfect. Didn’t I say we all aspire to become perfectionists?

And once you fall into that trap, it can become just as crippling as the feeling the new writer experiences when nothing sounds right. You can get so caught up in the process of writing-editing-writing-editing-editing-editing that you can’t really move forward.

That’s where I was stuck last fall. I couldn’t really start new chapters, much less new projects, because the old ones weren’t done. I still had editing to do. I needed to finish.

When I participated in NaNoWriMo last November, I had to break out of that trap. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality.

Wait, what?

daliYes. The idea is that every day you write something new, and keep moving forward. You don’t edit, you don’t cut and paste. If you’re honest, you don’t even go back and re-read what you wrote for the entire month. Instead, you spend time every single day creating something new.

This is liberating, because you break out of the editing trap. You give yourself permission to experiment. You learn tricks to breaking out of writer’s block. And at the end, you have a massive piece of writing that could never have happened so quickly if you kept going back and editing, proofreading, cutting, changing.

I’ve managed to overcome the editing trap, but I’m still a perfectionist at heart. This means that it’s still difficult for me to share my fiction until it’s done, until it has been through the crucible of editing and been refined, purified, polished up to a sparkling gem. What I cannot do is put rough drafts out for all eyes to see.

One of my colleagues, Robyn, has just started a blog that stands in defiance of perfectionism. In Goodbye, Red Pen, she is doing what I can only dream about… writing and publishing a draft chapter every day. While I sit here belaboring the process of writing for my daily blog challenge, she’s actually putting herself out there, displaying her fiction as naked, unedited prose for the world to see.

I am so awestruck by her courage… and her gorgeous writing.

I’m also inspired by her example, and am considering posting a few snippets from this month’s writing as part of Camp NaNoWriMo here on my blog… but even then it won’t be everything, just the stuff that has passed through my harsh internal censors. Even the thought of doing it gives me hives, so we’ll see how it goes.

For now, check out her blog… it’s been a week and the story is fantastic. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

12 thoughts on “Confession of a Perfectionist Writer”

  1. Creating something, from scratch, without editing, is hard for me. I’ve been trying to do the April blogging challenge and fresh content daily is hard.

    • Wow, I hadn’t ever heard the parable of the pottery. That’s exactly the point I was trying to make. Thanks for sharing! (and for posting with such an appropriate name!)

  2. I hope things are going well for you with Camp. It is hard to turn off the inner editor sometimes but if we don’t, we’d be forever stuck in chapter one, or maybe that’s just me. 😛

    • Thanks! So far I’ve already accomplished more than I ever expected, getting myself “unstuck” creatively, and as of this moment, I’ve already written 15006 words towards my 50K, with more coming before I go to bed. 🙂


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