The title of this blog post comes from advice given to a fellow writing friend of mine by his mentor, Kirk Duncan. It is something I have struggled with a lot this last year as I’ve decided to pursue my writing with real intent. As someone who has always had school come easy, and who has grown up being told I am “smart” and “talented,” it kills me to think I might ever produce something sub-par. I am capable of learning the correct way to write, learning all the tips and techniques upfront, so I should be able to plug all that in as I go, making a scene perfect before moving on, right?
On so many levels.
First of all, there is no one correct way to write. It is an art, as subjective as any other, and while there are general guidelines, there is no one right way to do it. Which means there is no perfect.
As a person of faith, I love the Bible. One of the verses I find most interesting is during the sermon on the mount when we are commanded to “be ye therefore perfect” (Matt 5:48). I personally don’t believe God would command us to do something impossible, so there has to be more to the commandment than meets the eye. And there is. In the LDS edition of the KJV bible, there is a footnote showing that the word translated as “perfect” comes from the Greek word that also means “complete, finished, or fully developed.” So basically, I am taking that as God’s permission to stop being a perfectionist and just finish the manuscript already! Haha!
Secondly, so many nuances of the art of writing can not be learned just by listening to podcasts and going to critique groups. Yes, you can greatly improve your writing when you edit it, but the most improvement, the most growth as a writer, is going to come by getting more words under your belt. Some lessons can’t be learned until you have a whole manuscript finished and can look back on it in its entirety. There isn’t much purpose in trying to edit and perfect a scene with a limited perspective. Once a story is finished, you can edit with the whole picture in mind, and those edits will be so much better for it. I’m not saying editing as you go is wasted time, but it has the potential to be if what you edit is just going to have to be re-edited once you finish the manuscript and have a better idea of pacing and theme and characterization.
That’s all fine and dandy, but knowing I shouldn’t be a perfectionist doesn’t automatically stop all my perfectionist tendencies that are slowing down my writing. They’re habits. Horrible perfectionist habits like reworking a single sentence for twenty minutes so it flows just right or taking a two hour research detour so my character can sound like an expert when they discuss something science-y… for two whole lines. So how do you get rid of bad habits? By replacing them with good ones.
The habit I have developed over the past two months that has been working well for me is to have a daily word count goal. Personally, I have to write 500 new words each day on my current WIP. I don’t get to go to bed, and I can not go back and do any editing, until those 500 new words are done. Some days, I am falling asleep and having to splash water on my face to crank out the last fifty words. Other days I have gotten so into a scene I finished a 2,000 word chapter. I’ve averaged far more than 500 words a day, but that is m minimum goal and at this point, its a habit. I do still go back and get to edit occasionally as I think of cool things that I can add to prior chapters. But only after my 500 words are done for the day. Your goal may be more or less than that, but for my life as a mom of three active boys, 500 words a day is what I could handle. And so far, it’s worked. With the exception of a few days with illness or unforeseen family emergencies, I’ve met my goal, and I’m so much further ahead in my novel then I thought I would be at this point.
But what if you realize something while you’re writing that needs to be changed and you don’t want to forget it before your 500 words are done? For me, typing notes of things to edit is fine, I just can’t make the actual edits. So if I am working on my 500 words for the day and realize I need to fix something in previous chapter, I will go back and type something like: <remove references to _____ and replace with ____> or <add explanation about _____> . And that’s it. Then I go back to my spot and keep plugging along to my 500 word count goal.
Other ideas that often help if you are a slow writer plagued with the habit of rereading every line you write and researching the perfect details for your work:
- Turn off your wi-fi access to prevent distractions from social media or research tangents. If you can’t think of a better word for a particular sentence, highlight your mediocre word in a specific color to come back to it later when you grant yourself access to thesaurus.com again.
- Try having whatever scene you are working on be in a separate document or window from the rest of your story and have it be the only document or window open. It’s easier to scroll back in a document and get lost in previously written text than it is to deliberately select and open a document from a drop down menu.
- Shrink the size of your window down to 10%, or some other small percentage, so that you can’t see what you are writing in order to go back and reread it.
- Do word sprints. This is where you set a timer and try to write as many words in that time frame as possible. You can compete against a friend, or try to set record for a new personal best each time.
- Track your progress. If your goal is to hit 70,000 words, keep something in your writing space that lets you mark off every 1,000 words you hit, so you can visually see yourself approaching your goal.
Those are some of the tips and tricks I’ve heard of. Do you have any others you recommend for helping slow, perfectionist writers break their bad habits and finish a manuscript in a timely manner?