Perfectionism: rigorous rejection of anything less than perfect (Encarta Dictionary).
Perfectionism can lead to misery, frustration, and long nights of ranting to the dog because he’s the only one who will listen. Meanwhile, Fido wonders why he ever wanted to leave the pound.
Once you’ve finished the chapter (or paragraph, or manuscript), gone over the grammar, tweaked the dialogue, and clarified plot points, how do you decide it’s time to let it go? Or, until the date it’s accepted by an editor, do you continue to go back and do rewrites?
How obsessive are the WinR’s??? How obsessive are YOU? We’d love to hear how you handle this dilemma.
Since I haven’t been published a lot, I have the luxury of continuing to tinker endlessly with my work. My short pieces usually get at least ten revisions. After a few rewrites I read them aloud and/or get trusted colleagues to give feedback and then revise and revise and revise. (Does the word “perfectionist” starting resonating about now?) Longer pieces I probably rework at least five times. The first draft is generally so hideous I don’t show it to anyone except maybe the dog; I revise until it’s fit for human eyeballs and then workshop it two or three times, and even then I find little things (sometimes not so little) that I’m shocked to have missed before.
At some point though, quite honestly, I just so darn sick and tired of the piece it that I can’t face another read-through. It goes in the drawer, and some things have sat there for years. Then one day I’ll drag one out, take another look, and go, “Well, this isn’t so bad. If I just changed . . . . “
Does anyone ever get a message from the Muse that says “enough?” If they do, I’m jealous! I don’t like to read the published version of my work, because I’m always afraid I’ll spot some huge flaw that snuck past the editor and me. I’ve gotten pretty good at disconnecting from the writing by then and can (almost) pretend it was written by someone else.
One Last Polish
“Only God is perfect.” The rest of us strive for just being good at what we do. As a wise man once said, “You might be stupid, but you don’t want to look stupid.” So we keep polishing that sentence, or paragraph, or novel to make it not only look good, but also, surprise, surprise, it might actually be good. And if you persevere, it just might be great. So each pass of the polishing cloth gets us closer to “good.”
Here is another saying: “Don’t beat a dead horse.” If everybody tells you something doesn’t work, start over with another approach. Or maybe bury it. Lazarus had help coming back from the dead. If you don’t have Divine help, get over it and move on. Time’s a wastin’.
But don’t polish you work for so long that the toes fall off. The Pieta in Rome has had the feet of Christ replaced numerous times because people keep rubbing the toes for good luck. I hope they got their good luck, but your work will only end up toeless if you don’t finally say: “I’m done.”
But as with all wise sayings, here is my favorite. My father told me after I had moved to California to write, “No matter how good you think you are, I think you’re better.” So my friends, find people who are in your corner. People who will give you heartfelt encouragement and constructive criticism. You need both. And then, do the toughest thing of all: trust yourself.
After all it’s your work. Have faith, do your best, and let it go.
My Work of Art!
Have you ever gone back and read a piece that you “finished” last month (last year, last decade) and been horrified by the errors? What happened to your clever story—the one that was going to win the Pulitzer? Who the heck broke into your computer and destroyed your masterpiece!!!
Experiences like that make writers neurotic. The fear is that we’ll send out substandard stuff and that editors will add our name to the Black Book of the Damned—writers they would only read with a pitcher of cocktails and their BFF’s with the intent of having a giggle.
There has to be an end point or you’ll drive yourself mad. (An insane writer—is that redundant?) 1. Always set your work aside and get back to it after at least a week’s rest.
2. Expect that, when you pick your piece up again, it will have errors. This is good. You’re finding them before it goes out!
3. After this edit, you can allow yourself one more rest and read cycle. Unless you rewrite the whole thing from scratch, trust that you’ve found what needs to be found.
4. Have an objective set of eyes look at it. This is where a good writing group is invaluable.
5. Let it go.
There’s a line of thought that says you have to let things go in order to attract new things. Imagine all the writing projects you’re missing out on by obsessing over this one piece. Is it worth hanging onto for the rest of your life?
We all want to do our best, and that’s all we can do. I will make mistakes. I’ll learn from them, forgive myself and move on. Nobody’s perfect.