The Perfectionist Writer

If quantity is not necessarily a true barometer of productivity, what then for quality?

Here comes our Perfectionist Writer!

Hang on, scrap that—Step forward, our Perfectionist Writer.

No, no, that’s not right.

Herewith may I present to you

What is this, 1598?

And so on.


Now, there is nothing wrong with the fine-tuned sentence. In fact, there is everything right about it. Hone your sentences. Give due consideration to what you’re saying, and how you’re saying it. Carefully build the house of your book, sentence by sentence. Polish, too, as you go. Rejoice in your Booker-ready sentences! Sail home on the winds of the perfect paragraph! Your daily word count may be small, but you are a GIANT of the English language! And, dammit, when this “first” (ha!) draft is done, the book will also be done!

Our Perfectionist Writer may feel good, but there’s a problem. Consider this:

A man sets out to build a house that includes a tower.

He gets to work. Only he doesn’t notice that the initial few bricks of the tower aren’t quite level. They’re 2 degrees out. Insignificant when the tower is only a foot high; dramatic and disastrous when he steps back to look at the finished building: the tower is wonky.

Now he has a problem. His house looks ridiculous. And he's spent so long building the tower, with such pride in his craftsmanship, that he can't bring himself to knock it down and start again.

Do you see the problem?

As it turns out, it doesn't really matter. The builder has a more pressing problem—the house has taken him so long to build that, due to rising sea levels, it's now fourteen feet under the North Sea.

Perfectionism is not productive.

THE CURSE OF PERFECTIONISM

Perfectionism is the writer’s curse. It’s an insidious and debilitating way of thinking. There's no such thing as a perfect anything. But perfectionism is easy to slip into.

The good news is that it’s very easy to avoid—if you know how.

Our old friend, Henry James, is about to throw you a lifeline of such tremendous import that you will forever be grateful to the man.

Are you ready?

Henry James said: “Excellence does not require perfection.”

Take a minute to let that sink in fully.

“Excellence does not require perfection.”

This is liberating. If you’re of the persuasion, write it out on a piece of card and stick it above your desk. If you’re not, do it anyway. It’s worth reflecting on every time you sit down to write.

Dr Harriet Braiker, an American clinical psychologist, says that “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralising.”

“Demoralising” is, I think, a polite way of putting it.

Psychologist Dr. Olivia Hurley has this to say on what she calls "seekers of excellence."

Seekers of excellence:

  • Set challenging goals that remain within their reach (instead of unattainable goals)
  • Base their happiness on who they are, not what they do (and are happier for it)
  • Bounce-back from failure more easily than perfectionists
  • View mistakes as learning opportunities, and use these lessons to motivate themselves on their next attempt (whereas perfection-seekers tend to dwell on their mistakes and often have difficulty forgetting them)
  • Listen carefully and accept criticism, using it as an opportunity to learn how they can do better. (Perfectionists, she adds, do not like or handle criticism well. Haha. Sound familiar?)

Dr Hurley does make the important point that it’s possible to be a seeker of excellence in one area of your life (eg running) but a perfectionist in another (eg writing).

In the next chapter we'll have a think about whether you are seeking excellence or perfectionism.