Jon Johnston

Perfection – A Writer’s Scourge

graffiti in a concrete tunnel

Perfection is the enemy of good.

Have you heard that phrase before? I suppose you have. It’s the idea you’ll never complete something because it’s never good enough.
It is a big problem for me when writing.
I find it difficult to write a first draft of anything.
The process should go like this. (Notice, “should”.)
Come up with an idea.
You can decide whether you do an outline ahead of time. I have to begrudgingly admit an outline lets you know where you’re going, unless you’re a pantser who’s writing fiction. I’ve always thought of myself as a pantser, a person who makes it up as I go, but I find that way more difficult to do now because of TBI-related memory problems. It used to be I could remember everything I wrote. Now? HA! I use an application called Xmind to do mind mapping to help lay out longer material.
Write a first draft as quickly as possible.
Decide whether it’s poop or not.
If it isn’t, check “flow” – how well the writing flows from one concept to the next. Perhaps from one scene to the next.
I’m sure my problem with perfection came from a book I wrote years ago, in the early 90s. About Novell networking was a 600-page book. I finished it in three months. I worked full time as an IT consultant as I did it. I worked about 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I was exhausted all of the time.
Over the Memorial Day weekend before the deadline, Heidi took the kids and went on a short vacation. I sat in a chair and wrote all weekend with pages of printed manuscript all over the floor beside me. I fell asleep at one point and woke up writing my dream. I still remember it. It was just a short passage. It was something out of the Monty Python Holy Grail movie, where a Knight was riding a horse coming up over a hill at me. That’s what I wrote in the text of this book – how there was a knight wearing dark armor. I described him and his horse. Then I woke up, still writing.
Anyway, I knew I wouldn’t have time to write a first draft, and then edit it. So I tried to be as perfect as possible going through the first time. I edited as I wrote. I think it set the stage for me doing that for everything for the rest of my life, and nonfiction writing, which is comprised magazine articles, which are short, and blog posts, which are short, are easier to do. Books, not so much.
I learned another important writing and life lesson from writing that Novell book. The publisher was a German company – Weka Publishing. Working with them, I learned how beneficial it is to write in a clear, concise manner that the widest audience can understand. Don’t use the word, “vituperative” when the word “bitter” will do. Don’t use phrases only people in your part of the world understand. People who speak English as a second language won’t understand what you’re saying. And honestly, you sound like a try-hard. (Notice how hard I am trying to keep from using profanity there.)
I’ve concluded that if I’m going to be successful at writing books, I’m going to have to figure out how to let myself be less than perfect. I need to write faster. That means you need to write it, and then throw it away and in doing so you can throw it out of your mind.
Sometimes when you write, you give birth to something that takes on a life of its own. Other times, it’s just poop. You flush it down the toilet and go on. Part of success is understanding the difference.
The other part – allowing yourself to be less than perfect. I’m still trying to figure this out.

I was going to entitle this piece – “Perfection – A Writer’s Bane“, but that would have meant I’d used the word “bane” in two headlines in a row. That would not seem writerly of me, would it?