Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Writers: Is Perfection Getting in Your Way?

By Rhiannon Thomas, @RhiannonKT

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: The writing process can (and often is) messy, but somehow we expect our words to hit the page perfectly on a first draft. When they don't, we can feel...unhappy about it. Rhiannon Thomas visits the lecture hall today to share some thoughts on why striving for perfection isn't always the best way to go on a first draft.

Rhiannon is an English Lit grad from Princeton University. She currently lives in York, England, in the shadow of a 13th century Gothic cathedral. When she isn’t lost in YA fantasy, she writes about feminism and the media on her blog, Feminist Fiction.

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Take it away Rhiannon...

Perfectionism is deadly for writing.

There might be some writers out there who have complete confidence in their abilities and always live up to their own expectations, but I've never met any of them. For me, and most people I know, writing is a battle against that little voice in your head, telling you that your work will never be good enough.

Which is why I've abandoned the idea of trying to get things right. The minute I try to write a "good" novel, I freeze. I forget that the back button exists for a reason, and subconsciously think that I have to find the perfect words, right now. There's no editing, no groundwork to build on. It's perfection or bust.

My brain empties out, nothing gets written, and all hope is lost. Or, you know, something slightly less melodramatic than that.

So now, when I work on any story, from first draft to final revisions, I have a simple goal in mind: I just have to make it suck slightly less than it did before.

That's it. "Good" doesn't even come into the equation. I hope, of course, that it will be good, and I might reread it later and decide that it is good, but in the moment, there's no judgment or standard beyond "slightly less awful than whatever I had before."

For first drafts, this means I have the freedom to create something atrocious, because I simply have to make something that exists. Words on the page -- any words -- are better than nothing at all. And luckily, the result usually isn't so bad after all, but it's that permission to be awful that allows me to even begin.

For later drafts, it simply means taking a step in the right direction toward "good." This scene isn't working, so try something new, and see if it works slightly better. It doesn't have to be right, and you can edit it again later, so just try it and see.

And although the approach sounds like it would allow for authorial laziness -- a painful "that'll do" attitude -- it actually frees me to take risks and try new things. As long as I'm not trying to be perfect, I can dive in and see where the story takes me. I free myself from my own self-doubt. And if I get it wrong, so what? I'll make it better again in my next set of edits.

This only works, of course, if you plan to revise loads of times. I know some authors like to outline the entire book in detail and keep rewrites to a minimum. But that's not and will never be me. Writing, for me, is a battle against anxiety and self-doubt. And the best way to battle those things is to dive in head-first, not caring too much about the result, because you'll fix it next time, or the time after, or the time after that... until you find that it got to the place you wanted it to be, almost without you realizing it.

Because once I feel free to make something that's not amazing, something that's just a little better than before, I can put myself in a space where I might make something that's actually good.

About A Wicked Thing

One hundred years after falling asleep, Princess Aurora wakes up to the kiss of a handsome prince and a broken kingdom that has been dreaming of her return. All the books say that she should be living happily ever after. But as Aurora understands all too well, the truth is nothing like the fairy tale.

Her family is long dead. Her "true love" is a kind stranger. And her whole life has been planned out by political foes while she slept.

As Aurora struggles to make sense of her new world, she begins to fear that the curse has left its mark on her, a fiery and dangerous thing that might be as wicked as the witch who once ensnared her. With her wedding day drawing near, Aurora must make the ultimate decision on how to save her kingdom: marry the prince or run.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Write atrociously. Make atrocious better. Repeat until good. I like that recipe.

  2. Wow, I needed to read this.