Writer’s write: don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good

“If the pen fits, write it.”
“If the pen fits, write it.”
Sometimes my posts grow out of a personal rant in response to something I read elsewhere, such as this one disagreeing with someone’s definition of what constitutes a writer. The definition I gave of a writer that time was someone who writes, specifically someone who tells stories in the form of sentences strung together into a narrative. And while I made a distinction between the act of writing background information and the like rather than the actual sentences comprising the story, I was focusing on the act of writing, and not talking about quality or merit. Which isn’t to say that quality isn’t an issue in writing. Anyone creating art of any kind hopes that what they create is good, right?

All too often, that wish for the artwork to be good becomes the greatest obstacle to finish the story. It’s like the proverb, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” It is easy to fall into the trap of rewriting and revising a story (or a single scene) again and again because it isn’t perfect. We may scrap what we’ve written already altogether and start over from scratch because we don’t think it’s good enough. We may refuse to ever show our work to anyone because we don’t think it’s good enough.

If you are caught in that kind of a cycle, it isn’t easy to get out. As frustrating as it is to be in that situation, let me tell you it is at least as frustrating for your friends and loved ones to watch you spin in circles. I don’t have a magic solution, but I have a suggestion. You need to let it go. Show the imperfect draft to someone you trust. Think of it as tearing a bandaid off all at once, so the pain is over quickly. If you can survive showing it to someone, that should tell you you can survive moving forward.

It’s okay if the person you show it to doesn’t like it. But it is even more important to make yourself believe this: it’s also okay if they like it. Don’t listen to the voices in your head telling you that they are just saying it to be nice—listen to this person (who you chose to show it to because you respect and trust them, right?) who is telling you they like it.

And if you’re having trouble believing someone who tells you they like something you wrote or drew or made, think about this: when you don’t believe them, you aren’t being self-deprecating, you are insulting them. You’re saying that your friend has poor taste or is too unsophisticated to judge quality.

Maybe one of the ways I’ve lucked out in life is that I never had people who told me everything I made was wonderful. My mom has absolutely no problem telling me which parts of my published works she wishes I had done differently, for example. Back when my nice Grandma was alive, she similarly had no trouble saying, “I don’t understand it, and didn’t really like it, but if you’re happy…” And don’t get me started on my evil grandmother!

Which gets me to the other part: if people don’t like it, that doesn’t mean it is awful. It may mean the story (or painting or whatever) simply isn’t for them. I think every author that I have ever said I loved, has written at least one book or short story that left me cold. I absolutely adore many other things they’ve made, but for one reason or another that one either put me off, or bounced me out, and left me unsatisfied. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that book or story was bad. It just means that story wasn’t for me.

Let go of the doubt. Let go of the fear. Rip off that band aid and let the art speak for itself. Don’t apologize. Don’t tell people it isn’t very good. And don’t reject any compliments you may get.

If you decide to shelve it after showing it to someone, fine. As long as you move on to the next story. Because a writer writes… and keeps writing!

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