Perfectionism is a common trait amongst writers. It is especially true of fiction writers, who often spend hours worrying over their exact word choices and word order. They might lose half an hour deliberating over a comma. Does this sound like you?
If you recognise yourself in this, then know this. Perfectionism is not serving you.
Spending forever trying to make a single story perfect does not serve you. Carving out your single novel over years does not serve you. Keeping your writing secret does not serve you. Not moving on does not serve you.
Writing one single piece of fiction keeps you stuck. And while you’re stuck, there are people putting out books that are not as good as yours. They’re writing blogs on the Internet. They’re sharing their imperfect stories. They’re making sales. They’re becoming known.
Most importantly, they are becoming better writers.
In the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, the writers explain how this works. They tell the story of a ceramics teacher who split his class into two groups. The first group would be given a grade solely based on the quantity of work they produced. Their grade would have nothing to do with the quality. The second group of students was required to produce just one item, but in order to receive an A it had to be perfect.
Both groups worked away. The first group made piece after piece. They moved on quickly, not lingering on their work. The second group focused on a single piece, trying to find a way to make it flawless.
The result was a difference in quality. One group achieved work of a higher standard than the other. That group was the first group. They had spent their time learning from their mistakes and getting better at creating.
In your writing, it is much better to be like a student in that first group. You’ll learn from your mistakes. You can only learn from your mistakes if you allow yourself to make mistakes.
How to Overcome Perfectionism as a Writer
Yes, it can hurt to put out a story that someone might criticise for being less than perfect. But keeping your writing secret until you’ve crafted that one masterpiece will mean that masterpiece is never going to happen. You’ll have formed some great theories about how to write that perfect novel but you won’t have it there in reality.
Sticking to your one single novel, painfully carving out the words over years, is not the way to end up writing a great novel. The way to write great work is to write often and to write new stories and new scenes.
Keep moving on. Form a writing habit. When you combine this with time spent learning the craft of writing fiction, you can’t help but improve in your storytelling, your structure and your style.