Finished is better than perfect
October 7th, 2018
Years and years and years ago, I tried to write a children’s story about two characters called Mr Gumshackle and Miss Leatherbarrow. Looking back, the idea was way too cute, and I was trying to be too clever, and I doubt if anyone except me would have been interested in reading it. (But that’s part of the learning process, writing badly over and over again until you start to improve.)
The thing about this story was, I never got past the second paragraph. I got stuck, trying to make the beginning perfect. I rewrote it over and over again, obsessing over individual words. I took them out and put them back in again. I moved them around. I tried to make them sound more impressive.
And all this time, I had no idea what was going to happen in the story after the beginning.
I haven’t done that for years, but I was reminded of it yesterday when I was talking to a friend who is studying nursing. She’s up to her back teeth in end-of-year assignments and essays, and really struggling to get them done. And after we’d talked for a bit, it became clear that she was doing that obsessing-over-individual-words thing. Trying to get the first very small part of the assignment perfect before she moved onto the next part.
I love giving advice, I really do. I usually have to stop myself because I long to leap in with my superhero cape streaming out behind me, even when I’m not asked. Which is not a good thing. But my friend wanted advice, because she was in a hole and didn’t know how to get out of it.
So I told her how my first draft is always a discovery draft, and how I try to get the whole story down before I go back and fix it. And how research is one of the last things I do, not the first, because it’s no use spending hours researching something if you end up cutting that part of the story. And how all successful writers know that finished is better than perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist, and if you go looking for it, you end up down a rabbit hole that never ends.
Then I sent her off to do a quick and dirty outline of the whole assignment, without doing research, without obsessing, without worrying if it was right or not. (I was very bossy, which was fun.)
And she did it! She dropped in last night with her quick and dirty outline, with a much better idea of where the assignment was going and how much she already knew. And much less panic.
I still get stuck sometimes. Still find myself obsessing over a sentence that no one else but me is going to notice. So this was a really nice reminder. Forget perfect. Get it finished.