Posted in Writing

Please Don’t Try to be Perfect in Your Writing


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

As with all other aspects of the narrative art, you will improve with practice, but practice will never make you perfect. Why should it? What fun would that be?

I wrote my first novel in April of 2010. I wrote my nineteenth novel in December of 2018. I have been a writing machine for nearly ten years now. I love to write. I love to practice. I love to think about stories all day and then do my best to tell those stories in novel form.

One thing I don’t love to do?

I don’t try to be perfect in whatever I write.

No matter how much better you get in your writing month after month, year after year, you will keep making mistakes. And that’s okay!

Mistakes will happen even after you’ve practiced your heart out.

I felt really good about my nineteenth novel when I finished the first draft of it in January. Thought it was maybe one of my best first drafts ever. I let it rest for three weeks, and then I went back to it, and as I worked on my first revision, I kept thinking to myself, damn, this is good! This is really compelling and flows surprisingly well!

These thoughts meant something to me because I genuinely don’t think that most of the time. I’d say 80% or more of the time when I read the first drafts of my novels I’m trying to keep the vomit down. Reading chapter after chapter that for whatever reason aren’t working or don’t work as well as they should.

This novel I thought was working. Not perfect. I don’t ever strive to be perfect. But there was a lot of great stuff in there, and now it was time to shape it and make it better.

But then an important person in my world took a look at it and sent me back three pages of notes.

As it turned out, there were actually a ton of problems with the book.

The story wasn’t quite convincing. The main character needed to be more active, have clearer goals and motivation.

Worst of all, the voice wasn’t working at all, and there was the suggestion that I change the voice from first person to third.

I could have ignored all this advice.

Could have just moved on to a third draft in which I didn’t change much of anything and instead just kept building on what I already had.

Instead I took the mistakes I made to heart, actually agreed with the points she made, and decided that the only way I was ever going to make this novel better was to embrace the mistakes and push myself on the next revision.

I’m almost done changing the POV of the entire novel from first person to third, I have cut five major chapters and two major characters, and I have shortened the novel’s timeline from eight days to four days.

I’ve in a sense simplified the novel’s story-line while at the same time complicated my main character considerably and added more menace and spookiness to the setting, as well as to the antagonist’s backstory. I’m doing whatever I can to make this book better.

But I’m not, in any way, striving for perfectionism.

Perfection might come for a few select genius writers who wrote the right story, at the right time, with the insane amount of talent they carry around each and every day.

But for most of us (i.e., you and me) perfectionism isn’t worth going after.

You know what is worth going after?

Writing the first draft of your novel to the best of your ability, then spending months or even years revising it with help from beta readers and people in your world that you trust. You should be going after ways to make your novel shine even when it’s hard, even when you have to cut a quarter of your draft and write new scenes, new characters.

Again, unless you’re lucky, you’re not going to get it exactly right on that first draft.

Your first draft will not, cannot, be perfect.

What will make you a better writer is coming to terms with your limitations, embracing any flaws you might have in your storytelling, and practicing, practicing, practicing to make it better.

You won’t ever get it just right. As King says in that quote, what would be the fun in that? Who wants to read an absolutely perfect novel? What even is a perfect novel?

Sometimes the stories that are a little messy are the most compelling.

The stories that were written with great passion and a determination to never quit.

Don’t obsess over your failures. And don’t obsess over what you did wrong if the latest draft of your novel isn’t coming together the way you hoped it might.

Just keep moving forward, keep practicing, and write the stories you were born to tell.

2 thoughts on “Please Don’t Try to be Perfect in Your Writing

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