Chasing Perfection

Sat Mar 18 2017

The other day, a Twitter friend who shall remain nameless confessed to me:

I'm hiring you to edit this manuscript when complete but I'm terrified you'll hate it! I know I need constructive criticism but the thought of it not being perfect scares me.

I get it. I really do. I hate showing my stuff to anybody else before it's as good as I can make it. And I hate when they inevitably find mistakes.

But here's the thing. Chasing perfection is like that little boy trying to catch that bird. You'll never get it.

Relax about perfection

No matter what you do, no piece of writing will be perfect. It just won't. That's already guaranteed, like death and taxes. Name the best book you've ever read, and it's still not perfect.

So if it's never going to be perfect, why not just relax about it? What good is perfection doing you?

Perfection is an excuse

Chasing perfection may even be getting in your way. In particular, if "it's not perfect" is stopping you from sending your work to beta readers or editors like me, you're just blocking your own progress.

You will eventually reach a point where the work matches your skill level. When it's the best you are presently capable of making it.

The whole point of sharing the work with others is to help bring it closer to perfect, because other people will always be able to see different things in your work than you can.

If it were truly perfect, there would be no point in sharing it. Because it's not, you must.

Criticism is not failure

But I get why we resist. I get why my twitter friend said "I'm terrified you'll hate it."

Because too often we interpret any critique of our writing too harshly. If someone finds any fault, then we have failed. Any imperfection becomes a sign that we're nothing but lousy, hack wannabe writers who may as well throw our keyboards in the fire. We may as become hermits, eating moss in the forest and reading our crappy writing to the squirrels who we know won't say anything bad about it.

Take a breath. It's ok.

That your work got critiqued is not a failure. It's an opportunity to improve. Your critiquer is doing you a huge favor, providing you with the chance not only to improve that piece of writing, but to gain a writing skill you will apply to everything else you ever write.

Perfection is an illusion

Stop for a moment to consider what perfection would even mean.

It would have to mean your writing has achieved an unsurpassable pinnacle, from which there was literally no way in which you or anyone else could improve it.

Tragically, it would mean you had nothing left to learn. No way to grow as a writer. Your prose is perfect. Your storytelling is perfect. Your characterization and grasp of human behavior is so complete as to be utterly unassailable.

To be honest, I don't think that's possible. Writing is too complex, to subtle, too layered and interconnected to admit perfection. Narrative writing, having as its subject the infinite complexity of human beings and human experience, is far too vast a subject for any one person's limited experience and imagination to encompass.

Thus, it must always possible to grow, even though that means no book can ever be perfect.

I think that's a good thing.

Chase perfection

I understand the quest for perfection. If I'm perfectly honest, I chase perfection myself and respect authors who put in that kind of effort.

I just recognize perfection for a false idol. I look for the balance between letting perfection drive me without letting it stop me from showing my work to others so they can help me make it even better.

Strive for perfection, certainly. Always do your best. Take your craft seriously and work hard at it.

But forgive yourself for being human. Don't use perfection as an excuse for never finishing a project. For never sharing your work with the world.

Indeed, if you are to chase perfection the right way--in the true spirit of growth and learning--sharing your work is essential.