Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Perils of Perfectionism

By Lisabet Sarai

"The good is the enemy of the best." Anonymous proverb

I'm sure most readers have encountered the maxim above. The point? That it's a mistake to be satisfied with "good enough". By exerting only the minimum effort needed to fulfill the requirements of some task, you're missing out on the opportunity to produce something truly great.

Personally, I subscribe to this philosophy―up to a point. I believe that when you commit yourself to something, you should be willing to devote 100% of your effort to meeting that commitment. That means not making excuses (except of course in extreme situations like illness or family crises). It means seriously applying yourself to the problem you've shouldered, spending whatever time is realistically necessary to solving it.

In the so-called real world, I'm a teacher (among other things). Nothing upsets me as much as a student who's happy just to “get by”. That sort of student is wasting his own time as well as mine. (Please pardon my choice of pronoun. I don't mean to imply that this pattern is limited to males.) I don't know why he bothers. Sure, he may get a passing grade, but aside from that, what will he have to show for the months he's spent in my class? I'd much rather put my own effort into a poor student who is really trying to understand the material despite the difficulties than a more talented individual who isn't willing to work.

So I definitely think it's important to do one's best―up to a point. At the same time, as an author, I've seen many examples of the perils of perfectionism. I have writer friends who have been working on the same novel for years, rereading, revising, going through periodic crises of confidence about whether their book is really worth publishing. It's sad. I feel like shaking them. “Stop already!”, I want to say. “Submit the darn thing! You can't publish your work unless you submit it!”

New and aspiring authors, pay attention! You can't publish your work unless you submit it. Which means that at some point you have to stop polishing your prose and say enough is enough.

The French playwright Voltaire is credited with the reverse of the saying above: “The best is the enemy of the good.” When it comes to writing, I think this statement holds a good deal of truth. There's no such thing as a perfect story. If you're like me, every time you re-read one of your manuscripts you see some change that might improve it. Don't give in to the temptation. Decide ahead of time how many drafts you're going to do and stick to that decision. Otherwise, you'll get bogged down with one tale and never get a chance to write the others that are clamoring for your creative attention.

One thing I've learned is that it's not worth agonizing over a single book. You have to submit it, let it go and move on to your next. If I don't like what an editor or publisher has done with something I've written, I don't get my knickers in a twist. There are more stories where that came from, or at least I hope there are. This attitude helps me deal with rejection, too. Maybe I'll find another home for a rejected tale. Maybe I won't. In any case, I need to move on.

Readers are hungry. You have to keep them fed with a continuing stream of good material. Good, not perfect.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not excusing sloppiness, poor grammar, spelling errors or wildly-veering point of view. If you're a professional writer, you have a responsibility to learn your craft and apply it to the best of your ability. The fact is, though, the more you write, the more you hone your technical skills. If you get hung up revising one work to death, you're missing the opportunity to keep learning.

Compared to many authors I know, I do relatively little editing. I rarely do more than two drafts. I do have a tendency to edit as I write, reviewing and modifying material from my last session before settling down to attack the day's goals, so my first draft is probably more highly polished than some authors'. I'm also pretty good with the nuts and bolts―grammar,spelling, punctuation and the like―so I can focus on higher level issues like characterization, pacing and emotional impact even during the initial pass.

Deadlines are a huge help, by the way. If you're new to the writing game, let me assure you: deadlines are your friends! Once you've made a commitment to submit a work by a particular date, you can pace yourself. You can make rational decisions about how much editing is feasible. You're not likely to be caught in the perfectionist trap.

So now I'll make a possibly embarrassing admission. I just submitted a 17K story after producing only a single draft. Am I being lazy? I don't think so―and in any case, I didn't have a choice. I'm leaving in two days for a three week foreign trip, and I promised the story by October. Plus I have more deadlines stacked up when I return. It will simply have to be good enough.

In any case, I'm pretty happy with it. I've found that my best stories tend to be the ones that I write quickly, the ones where inspiration carries me along. This tale is no literary masterpiece, but it fits the call for submissions to a T. And, after reading the blurb, the publisher has asked whether I'd be willing to write a 60K novel based on the same characters.

I'm going to wait a while before I commit to that deadline! 


  1. I've always heard it as "Perfect is the enemy of good enough." I just read it in that form, in relation to the European Parliament.

  2. From the Voltaire page at Wikiquote:

    Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

    The best is the enemy of the good.
    "La Bégueule" (Contes, 1772)

    Variant translations:

    The perfect is the enemy of the good.

    The better is the enemy of the good.

    Note: Voltaire cites this saying in his poem "La Bégueule" ("The prude woman") while ascribing it to an unnamed "Italian sage"; he also gives the saying (without attribution) in Italian (Il meglio è l'inimico del bene) in the article "Art Dramatique" ("Dramatic Art", 1770) in the Dictionnaire philosophique.

  3. I tend to do a lot of revising of any given piece, but usually I try to keep it all in the same "era" of my writing life. Personally, I feel that if I came back to a work after a year or more had elapsed and began tearing it apart again, it would be a different work from the one I embarked on as the writer I was back then. I'm not talking about writing skill (though I like to think I get better over time, rather than otherwise), but just the fact that my writing sensibilities and inclinations and goals and interests subtly evolve over time. A sentence that I was especially pleased with two years ago might leave me cold now—not because I'd decided it was a poor choice, but just because my focus had shifted. Generally speaking, I don't want to go back in time and tinker with what I was trying to do two years ago.

    1. Jeremy, your attention to detail is just plain scary. I'll never forget your guest post at my blog about finding appropriate period language in The Pleasure Dial. Made me want to hang my head, looking at my own careless attitude!

  4. As a teacher, I've told high school students that no piece of writing is ever really "done" can always be improved. So when they get a paper back with a grade, if they're happy they did their best, then accept the grade and move on. If they would like a better grade, then improve the paper and re-submit it. If it gets a higher grade, you'll have learned how to produce a better paper. Unfortunately, other teachers don't like my philosophy, even though very few students will bother to re-do a paper. So I'm stuck as a sub.

    In my own writing, I'll think a manuscript is perfect until the day I get it back from my editor. I'll be horrified, then have to eventually agree with most of the criticisms. So yes, by all means submit, because if it's accepted, your editor will be anxious to point out to you all of the many errors, and you'll get a chance to work them out...most of them.

    1. Hi, Fiona,

      I've taken that approach with my students as well (though they're mostly writing software not papers). I don't mean to argue against the notion that improvement is always possible. However, sometimes an obsession with perfection can be damaging to a writer, because it will keep her from moving on.


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