"Don't let the struggle for a strong opening strangle your creativity. Many of the best first lines are written last. Too many writing projects never get past the first paragraph or page, because of this particular type of perfectionism. For a writer, the perfect opening is one that either propels you into the piece and gets you writing, or simply doesn't get in your way. Yes, you need a strong opening… eventually. But writing, even with a clear focus, is about discovery. Your finished piece may be very different than what you first imagined."
On twitter, one day, this tip started a conversation about the fine line between caring about craft and perfectionism. Where does polishing your writing end, and perfectionism begin? How can you tell the difference between the two, when perfectionism so often looks and feels like wanting your writing to be the best it can be. Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that professionalism?
To sort this out for myself, I did some brainstorming and came up with some subtle, and not so subtle, differences between the two…
PERFECTIONISM: Your writing's never good enough.
PROFESSIONALISM: You want your writing to be the best it can be.
PERFECTIONISM: You often judge your writing harshly, and beat yourself up over it.
PROFESSIONALISM: You have a sense of professionalism and pride in your work.
PERFECTIONISM: Trying to be "perfect" often slows your progress, or stops it cold.
PROFESSIONALISM: As you polish your prose, you make steady progress and your writing gets better and better with each draft.
PERFECTIONISM: You spend hours agonizing over and editing EVERYTHING: emails, blog posts, and even comments you're making on other people's blogs, taking precious writing and editing time away from your primary project: your book, ebook, or novel.
PROFESSIONALISM: You have a sense of appropriateness. While you always want to do your best, you know that your blog post doesn't need to go through as many drafts as your book.
PERFECTIONISM: You can't move forward until you get it right. So, if something "right" doesn't come when needed, you end up abandoning project after project.
PROFESSIONALISM: If something isn't right and you can't quite get it, you feel free to move on because you know that you'll come back later and clean it up.
PERFECTIONISM: Causes frustration and tension, which closes down creativity.
PROFESSIONALISM: Gives you a sense of confidence, which opens up creativity.
Although professionalism and perfectionism can sometimes look the same--like being concerned about writing well--there's a subtle and important difference between the two which can be seen and felt in how we relate to our writing, what we say to ourselves as we write (or about our writing), and how writing and editing makes us feel.
Does your caring about craft spill over into perfectionism at times?
Rarely or often?
What does your perfectionism look like?
EXERCISE: Make a list of what you do, or say to yourself about your writing, when you're caught up in perfectionism. Once that's done, for every item list an "antidote" or alternative--what you might do or say to yourself, instead, that's more self-loving and that will open up your creativity, rather than close it down.
In my interview with Mark David Gerson (the author of one of my favorite books on writing, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write) for The WritingSpirit Book Writers Community, we talked about perfectionism.
Mark David said:
We all carry little perfectionist genes in our bodies. We all want to get it right. The first thing I said to this group the other day was, "It's never going to be perfect. Period. End of story." It simply cannot be perfect. It can be the best you can make it, but it will never be perfect. There are all kinds of reasons we can go into for that, but it won't be perfect.
If you start at that place, then you polish it as much as you can, at a certain point I think you have to stop or you will be writing the same book the rest of your life, or the same paragraph, or the same sentence.
Mark David then went on to talk about the nature of ideas and why it's actually impossible to capture them perfectly.
Where do you draw the line between professionalism and perfectionism?