Picture book sailin gship

Set Perfectionism Aside When You Write

Do you find it hard to get started writing because the words aren’t perfect as they appear on the page? Do you find yourself erasing almost as many as you write? Do you keep redoing things over and over and never finish? Perhaps it’s time to set your inner perfectionism aside. Several experiments in Sit Write Share address dealing with the inner judge that can make us feel so unhappy when we try to write.

When I am most productive, writing is a messy business. I write things that I don’t particularly like, but I know that if I keep going, valuable words will emerge.

The inspiration for this piece came from emails from a friend. Let me call her Jules using the “J” naming convention I use for all stories in Sit Write Share. She gave me permission to use her words, but I also agreed to de-identify her.

Jules has been working on a project to illustrate a children’s book for many years. She loves the story. She has many ideas for the pictures. We both have grandchildren who are interested in picture books, so she has a ready audience at hand.

Stop starting over

Jules bought my book when it came out, probably to be a good friend. Recently she wrote me about using my book to liberate her creative spirit.

Hi, I just had some thoughts related to the lessons in your book, specifically experiments 17-22. This all struck like a gentle lightning bolt.

I kept wanting to start everything all over again, like reinventing the wheel. I was not honoring the original work I had done on the book years ago. Probably because I didn’t get any encouraging feedback, I assumed it was all garbage and unworthy even of being a shitty first draft.

I’m realizing that it’s all actually a fine first draft. I’m finally seeing my way clear to elevating it. It’s worthy of honing and polishing just as it is, all of it. Because of this shift in mindset, I’ve made progress. Not only have I been able to shed some of sadness associated with working on it, I have actually felt some real enjoyment. It feels good to build on the hard work I put into it already.

All this gets back to Sit Write Share. Everything(!!!) you say in those chapters speaks about steps along the path, about noticing, tending, modifying, enjoying, and respecting that path. Not about constantly throwing it all up in disgust and confusion. Getting back to these lessons has been a comfort and guide. Thank you!!

Celebrate a first draft as a victory

Above I used Jules’s words just as she wrote them because I can’t improve on them. I love her description of respecting and enjoying the path to creation.

One of my own favorite experiments in Sit Write Share is Write Experiment 8: Separate Drafting from Editing. Drafting involves capturing thoughts just as they occur. Editing involves judging, changing, rearranging, and deleting. If you are editing while you write your first draft, you may find you erase almost as many words as you write. I suggest turning your internal editor off to get the first draft onto the page. Only then turn the editor back on to refine what you’ve created. If you follow the ideas of Elizabeth Jarret Andrew in Living Revision, editing can then become the spiritual practice of transforming your work: “Done well, revision returns us to our original love.”

I think of drafting as using the accelerator and editing as using the brake. If you do both at once, you waste a lot of energy going nowhere.
Once you’ve got a first draft, take a moment to celebrate the draft and honor your own creative spirit.

Know when you’re done

Jules wrote me another message about finishing parts of the project.

Hi again – just one more thought/insight: because I am better able to accept my first draft as a starting point, I am also better able to arrive at an ending point. I can say, “That’s good enough.” And move on. Because of being able to accept and even embrace these key elements in my project, I am finding pleasure and even delight.

Finish before the window of interest closes

I think I learned “good enough” as a software engineer. We all laughed at the idea of finding the very last bug. To be good at the business, we had to learn to recognize when we had reached the point of diminishing returns, that point where bugs were getting harder and harder to find and less and less likely to affect any customer. We also had to be aware of the window of interest among our customers that would close if we delayed too long.

Similarly, when writing, there is always something more that you could do: some sentences could be smoother, some resources could be added, some passages could be shorter. But there are readers out there who could be affected right now. What is the window of interest for your book or article? When will the cost of further delay be greater than the benefit of further fixing?

Jules’s grandson will only be interested in picture books for a few more years. Unless she wants to wait for her great grandchildren, she needs to get it done.

Nothing has to be perfect

At the beginning and end of any writing project, shake off perfectionism. No human endeavor has ever been perfect, nor does it need to be. Let your drafting spirit loose, and even when your editor is going full steam ahead, keep an eye on “good enough.”

Thank you to Jules for providing the illustration!