“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all morning and
took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”
Hearing other writers talk about writing is so useful! You can pick up so many tips. And the ones you get about what doesn’t work are every bit as important as the bits of advice you hear about what does. A case in point: I once heard a very well regarded writer of fiction for young adults — a woman who’d written scores of books — talk about her constant struggle with perfectionism. She would labor over one sentence incessantly, straining to make it perfect before she could move on to the next. It was a slow, painful process: she was in a constant battle with herself and never really satisfied with her work.
But there’s a happy ending here: At one point, she decided to go back to school to hone her writing skills — and she received some advice that changed her life. Instead of trying to perfect each sentence in your first draft, she was told, suspend your inner critic and just write. Once you have a draft in hand, you can tackle each aspect of it systematically in your rewrite. First, for example, you can look at all your dialogue and sharpen it; then look at all your character descriptions and fine-tune them; then address your scene-setting, and so on. Taking this approach was totally liberating, the writer commented.
Don’t get it perfect, just get it going! We’ve all heard that phrase. But it’s especially apt when applied to the writing process. When we get too hung up trying to write the perfect sentence or paragraph, we can easily get so tangled up in our words that we lose our momentum. And that can be deadly. There’s a lot to be said for just motoring through your piece from start to finish as quickly and energetically as you can. Even if your draft is sprawling and your writing uneven, you’ve got raw material to work with.
Some writers actually love the rewrite process: they love giving their work shape and texture. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, has said that she finds writing the first drafts of her novels incredibly painful and difficult. But once a draft is done, she is free to mold it and transform it: This is the phase of writing that she finds pleasurable.
So let’s give perfectionism the heave-ho and focus on persistence: it’s much more valuable and rewarding. Write on!