I’m doing it now. I’m doing it right now. I sit attempting to write a post about how perfectionism prevents progress, how it serves as a convenient excuse for not finishing things, and I’m stewing over finding just the right words to get started. And so I don’t. Get started, that is. Rather than diving in and getting as many thoughts on the page as possible, I obsess over crafting an introductory sentence that will be so compelling that you will have no choice but to dive in and bathe yourself in the glory of my prose. But why? And what can be done about it?
This is dumb. I know it is. And still I do it. All. The. Time. I understand very well intellectually that I need to focus on getting the ideas down first and worry about polishing the text later. I get it. I really, really do. So why don’t I behave that way? Why don’t I act the way I think? When I write, the following quote is how I want to feel about it:
One final scene to write and this story is done, and I will go to bed. In the second draft it will actually be about something.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) October 2, 2014
That tweet from Neil Gaiman, Lord Commander of the Written Word*, captures the kind of nonchalance I want to feel about the writing and revision process. It’s workmanlike, a description that may not seem flattering, but I assure you it’s meant as such. He understands that his work is nowhere near done and seems rather unconcerned about it. It’s possible I’m ascribing to much to this. Perhaps he lost a month trying to decide whether ‘splendid’ or ‘marvelous’ was the right way to describe the sort of day one of his characters was having. But even this wouldn’t matter. The point is he’s recognized that he hasn’t got it exactly right the first time and so he’ll be back at it to separate wheat from chaff, to make it look more like it probably did in his head all along.
The Inner Editor
The obstacle here is our inner editors, that voice inside your head telling you that your work isn’t quite good enough, doesn’t quite meet your exacting standards. I’m drawing a distinction here between straight up procrastination — postponing something you could or should be doing. We’ve made it past the point where we are avoiding sitting down to actually do the work, but we’ve found another way to not get anything done (oh, there are so many ways).
I’ve talked a little before about the challenges of dealing with one’s inner editor in the context of National Novel Writing Month and how outlining helped rescue me. That was a tactical solution to what is in many ways an emotional problem. Yes, I really do mean emotional here. While you think you’re deliberating about word choice, phrasing and style, what’s happening behind the scenes is something deeper. It’s a voice inside you saying you’re not good enough, that it’s too hard, that it would be so much easier to just give up.
Precise, tactical solutions like outlining are important, but how can we learn to deal with the underlying emotions that drive the behavior in the first place?
In order to get past my inner editor, I am attempting to break writing projects into three broad phases as a framework for helping me focus on what’s important.** Reminding myself which phase I’m in serves as a sort of mantra for keeping on task and worrying about the right things at the right time. This helps me quiet my doubts long enough to keep moving forward. Like so much of much of my writing process, my solution for this is still very much in development, but it’s been helpful so far. Most of what I discuss below will be in the context of long form writing, but it works for short forms like blogging as well only in an accelerated timeline. I use it here on this site, and I plan to use it as I begin the revision process on my novel as well. The phases are as follows:
The first draft is just an idea: Get ideas down above all else.
Focus on what you mean to say: Make sure everything fits together, that it can be read coherently.
Make it sound the way you want: Unleash you inner editor and let it find all the right words.
The First Draft is Just an Idea
The more you can remind yourself of this the better. The objective for a first draft is to get all of the critical ideas down and heading in the right direction. This can be misunderstood to imply that I’m not concerned with writing well during this phase, that I’m content to have every sentence be of the “see Jane run” variety. Not true. I want to write just as beautifully in this phase as I do at any other point. I just don’t want to get caught up in the pursuit of style and phrasing at the expense of forward progress.
Even though I lean heavily on an outline, this is the time to allow for flights of fancy and to follow instincts without second-guessing. If I want to veer off the plotted course, I give myself permission to do so without worrying (too much) about what it means for what I’ve already written.
My outline and first draft is like using a GPS. When you enter your destination, the device calculates the best route there from your starting point. But once you’re on the road, the information begins to change. You run into unexpected traffic. There’s a road closure that the GPS didn’t have the data for. Maybe you just decide to take a more scenic path. At first the GPS might yell at you for going the wrong way, but eventually it recalibrates. Same destination just a different route.
When I have impulses to make a change while writing in an early draft, I follow them. But here’s where things are different than with a GPS: I make notes to indicate where I veered onto a different course almost as if I intend to submit the data to the GPS company. While I’m not going to worry about reconciling such changes with things already written right then, you better believe I will be in subsequent drafts. There are all sorts of ways to do this. Highlighting critical passages. Adding to character notes. Marking a divergence in your outline. The objective is to make the decision and go with it while enabling yourself to keep track of such changes when you come back around to them.
Now, What Did You Really Mean to Say?
Once the first draft is complete, fix yourself a drink and give yourself a small pat on the back. That was hard, man, and I hope it was satisfying as well.
But you’re not done. Not by a long shot. Now you have to figure out what you’ve actually got, but for me it’s still not time to listen to the inner editor. My second phase is a fixing phase. Those divergences from the outline that I said were a good idea above? You’ve gotta make those line up with the rest of your story now. It’s about making the story coherent from beginning to end, getting all those pieces to fit together.
When making a second pass through a story I focus on facts, not style. I’m talking both little things (described a character’s hair as curly once and stick-straight later on) and big things (referenced an important event later on in the story that did not exist early in the story). If you’ve got an important scene two thirds of the way through where Julie is getting her ears sewed back on it’s probably important to know why she doesn’t have her ears at some point earlier.***
The more detailed your outline and the closer you adhered to it the easier this ought to be, but it’s still unlikely everything came together exactly as you laid it out ahead of time. My goal in this phase is to make sure someone could read the story from start to finish without any “what the…?” moments of confusion. There might be HUGE changes I need to make to get there, major revisions of plot or character. It probably won’t be 100% as smooth or artful as I want it to be yet when I’m done, but I shouldn’t have to help a reader make sense of the plot after this point.
Finally, How Did You Mean to Say It?
So you’ve reconciled all the inconsistencies, both intentional and not, from your first draft. The story can be read from start to finish without the reader having difficulty understanding what’s going on. Now, at long last, is when you let your inner editor out of its cage, when you focus on making the style and art of your writing as good as you possibly can.
Once I’m content that the story arc is solid and satisfying, I work on sanding down the rough edges and making everything shine. I begin to look more closely for opportunities to foreshadow, either by adding small hints and details or — and this is important — removing clarity or specificity in favor of subtlety. This is when I worry about word choice, style and description, though not to the point of descending into purple prose.
In terms of practical application, this final phase and the one before probably exist more in tandem or as two parts of a cycle than as discrete activities. I differentiate between them primarily to help me stay focused on what my goals are at any given point in time.
A Perfect Excuse Is Still an Excuse
Indulging your inner editor becomes the perfect excuse because you can feel like you’re working even though nothing is ending up on the page. We all want to write brilliant, moving passages and feeling like we are unable to do so can be crippling. It’s easy and, in a perverse way, tempting to convince ourselves that if we just keep thinking about the same thing over and over that we’ll eventually crack it.
But at some point, pen must meet page, keyboards must be tapped. This framework helps me remember what’s most important at each stage of writing and get past dithering over minor worries in favor of remembering the goal is to finish things, not just start them.
I’ve got a long way to go with this. My inner editor escapes pretty frequently when I don’t want it to, and frankly sometimes it’s easier to let it play for a bit rather than forcing it back into the cage right away. I’m working on it though, and ultimately that’s what matters. I can wait for perfection or I can work on getting better. Which one do you think is more likely to happen?
*Not an actual title, but if it were I’d nominate Gaiman. I am what they call a “fan.” I’d probably nominate him in the Spoken Word category as well. Have you heard the man speak? It’s delightful!
**It would be lovely if the barriers between phases were hard and fast. This is not the case, but I still find the overall framework to be helpful.
***This is not an example from anything I’ve written. No earectomies so far.