When Perfectionism Goes Wrong

Visualize that perfect novel you’ve always wanted to write. See the simple yet elegant design. It’s covered in medals like a four star general’s chest: the Newbery Medal, the Noble Prize for Literature, and the coveted Oprah’s book club sticker. Feel your name bulging from the dust jacket, feel the perfect stitching in the binding, and the deckled edges of pages.

Flip the book over and see your flawless portrait filling out the back. You look so well read, charming, and confidant, nothing like a fraud at all. Crack the book open, see the inside flaps littered with endorsements from authors you’d wet yourself upon meeting.

Within this book’s pages are the most profound prose you could pry from your soul. It’s your personal philosophy laundered into a story. Your life experience is spread throughout its contents. Every least comma represents a broken shard of your heart. Your every skeleton is laid out between its lines.

Readers will think of their lives in terms of who they were before reading this novel and who they became afterward. They will carry it with them like a bible. They’ll quote it in arguments. They’ll page through it in moments of quiet desperation.

Hold this novel out in front of you like an offering to the Heavens. Now drop it and kick it like a football. Watch it go over the horizon. Accept that this false ideal will never happen.

Perfectionism is a Problem

I started writing fiction in my early twenties. Since then I’ve written two novellas, two novels, and two screenplays that will never see the light of day. The problem with each of these projects was that none of them met my standards of perfection, despite massive revisions.

I thought it was so important to make a great first impression that I’d step back, trample everything I’d laid down, and try again. I thought that a fool persisting in his folly would eventually become wise. Experience did make me a wise writer, but the real lesson I learned was that deserting projects was the most foolish thing I was doing. Perfectionism was postponing my career.

If you have a bibliography filled with half finished books it’s time to have a conversation with your inner editor.

A perfectionist who never finishes anything will never be as accomplished as someone who does a half assed job. Quantity beats quality if the quality never gets past the idea stage. The slacker who writes an essay at the eleventh hour turns in a better paper than the genius who works all week and hands nothing in.

We should strive to do our best, but our best should be charted on a graph that takes time into account.

George Lucas once said that Star Wars was never finished only abandoned. This was how he justified the creation of the special editions films where he went in and retooled the special FX and altered crucial scenes. Look where perfectionism got him: CGI storm troopers flopping around on the backs of poorly rendered lizards and Greedo shooting first.

All artists must abandon their art.

You will never have the level of certainty about a piece of work that you want. You need to be able to share something you feel vulnerable about. You can release imperfect work and still believe it’s worthy of appreciation.


Write With Imperfection in Mind

French mathematician, Blaise Pasal once said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

All writing is rewriting and it’s in the editing I’ve gotten burned out by perfectionism. If an edit took too long I’d convince myself it wasn’t working. I’ve abandoned enough creative works to know my failings.

I know that no matter how many character biographies I write I’m going to introduce characters that come out of nowhere. I know they’ll feel one dimensional at first and flushed out by the end. That’s why I write their character details in the margins, copy those specifics into a template and work to include them earlier in the next revision.

I know that no matter how much I plot out I’m going to take the story in another direction. This is why I have a strategy to fix my broken continuity. I color code setups to make them easier to find in the document. That way I can see if they match their payoffs later on. If I came up with a third act twist that I hadn’t earned I go to my marked foreshadowing points and reroute the story.

I use these editing techniques to save time, because the more abstract my story’s problems are the more daunting editing them will feel. This is only part of my problem.

I’ve abandoned a project on the 17th edit. Not because it was trash, but because it wasn’t perfect. The screenplay was schlocky, but a lot of people liked its pitch. I should’ve sent it out, gotten it across some desks. Instead I started a fresh page on something else. That was my mistake.

Finish what you start. If you feel an urge to move onto the next thing, first tie up loose ends.

Closing Thoughts

I have a self imposed deadline to write one blog entry a week. I often come down to the wire and find myself saying, “That’s the worst blog entry I’ve ever written.”

Still, that sentiment doesn’t stop me from posting on time. For me it’s less about maintaining my blogger brand than it is about personal discipline. Every week I force myself to let an imperfect piece of art go. Whenever I reread something I’ve posted I think there’s something I wish I had done differently, but I accept that when it comes to being a writer that feeling comes with the territory.

Eavesdropping Advisory, one of my most popular articles and the first to be selected for WordPress’s freshly pressed section, was something I cobbled together at the last minute. At the time I wrote it I felt it was pretty weak, but when the time came I kicked it out of the nest. I’ve come to enjoy it since.

Writers should enter flash fiction contests, submit their short stories for collections, and get their manuscripts into publishers’ hands. Especially when they don’t feel confident. Before you can be extraordinary you need to be willing to fail. A loser and a slacker are not the same thing. Losers tried, slackers just defaulted on defeat.

Accept that your artistic creations will never be perfect. Accept that you will be submitting a lot of your work with mixed feelings. You’ll often agree with your critics and take issue with the praise you’re given. Trust me, it’s going to happen.

Don’t get stuck in a never ending revision cycle, all in the name of perfection. It’s a great ideal, but it’s so rarely attained.

Let me leave you with a revolutionary new thought technology that will change your writing forever; a life hack that will ensure when you start a story you finish it. Four simple words with the power to change your creative process forever:

Screw it, it’s done.


This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.

10 thoughts on “When Perfectionism Goes Wrong”

  1. I gave up trying to achieve perfection a very long time ago, as I realised early on that it was something other people found. I would settle for half way decent, but guess what, just as hard to find…

  2. Excellent post. Think it’s going to be a repost by me (as soon as I get to a real computer). Especially those few simple words. They are true words of closure so you can move on.

  3. I definitely agree! As hard as it can be to finish something and send it out into the world; it’s much worse to realize one day that you’ve become a writer who can’t finish ANYTHING, and all your dreams are leagues further away than before.

    I’ve actually been taking a couple of my stories that were abandoned midway for ‘oh gosh, this is terrible isn’t it?’ reasons, and finishing them. I’ve done two so far. ^-^

  4. OK, first, let’s be honest, Drew. Your half-assed is better than many people’s full-assed. Just saying.

    Second, regarding “authors you’d wet yourself upon meeting,” whatever that is in people that makes them star-struck (or, conversely, afraid of homeless people), I don’t have. I’m not saying I wouldn’t wet myself upon meeting an author; I’m just saying that it wouldn’t be involuntarily, but rather for effect, if I felt it would achieve my ends or be hilarious in my current frame of mind. That is all to say, I may choose to wet myself if ever we meet in person, but only for your amusement.

    Loved this down-to-earth and fresh analogy: “The slacker who writes an essay at the eleventh hour turns in a better paper than the genius who works all week and hands nothing in.”

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