I’m about to reveal one of the biggest secrets in the writing trade. Are you ready?
We don’t write to perfection. We write until it’s good enough.
“Wait,” you say in a sad, almost childlike voice. “But you’re a seasoned professional, that means you’re among the best at this job. How can you just phone it in?”
Ah, little grasshopper, that’s not what I said. I said we write until it’s good enough. That doesn’t mean I have low standards. That means I know, deep in my black heart, that I will never find every misplaced comma, not every turn of phrase will be gold, I won’t always spell everything right. There will be typos. There will be mistakes.
But I’m ok with that.
Perfectionism, Writing and You
One of the biggest problems I’ve see among the newly minted writer is an insidious sort of perfection that looks and sounds like fear. These kids will literally edit all the life out of their work, they’ll write until the piece is begging for an early death.
When this happens, I tell them that they’ve “touched it” too much. If you can imagine a piece, any sort of piece, as a butterfly’s gossamer wing, then you can get what I mean. You catch Mr. Butterfly and those delicate colored scales start to fall off. The more you touch his wings, the more color disappears. In the same way, the more you touch your work, the more you fuck it up.
I’m all for a first and even second proofing pass. I do this myself. I read work out loud so I know it flows properly. But after a pass or two, I’m done. I walk away. Your client, your readers — whoever is judging you — may demand changes that you may never have caught on your own anyway. Because of shit like the Gestalt effect, it’s hard to see your own errors. Your brain fills in the blanks and makes it look right.
This is the biggest unsecreted secret of all pro writers. It’s not about having the right latte or the perfect typing machine or even having a vision of pixies to guide you. IT’S THIS. Good Enough. It’s THE secret to it all.
Time is important when you’re writing, the more you spend, the less you make. So learning to proof quickly and walk away, that’s the secret. I can’t possibly give you any better writing advice.
When I Was a Young Writer…
Not that I’m an old writer now. I’ve just got a few miles on me. And a spare tire…. shut up.
When I was a very young writer, I read every piece of writing advice I could get my hands on. And the thing I didn’t realize then that I do realize now is that there’s no formula, there aren’t any magic tips that’ll make it work. Experience and effort will guide you. They will.
So how do you know you’re “good enough…” Or rather, that your work is?
OH LOOK A LIST!
Being good enough is sometimes harder than being perfect because it’s tricky knowing when to stop. But, these are a few rules I’ve made up just now that you can live your entire life and steer your career by:
Use spell check, but also learn how to spell. I am one of the world’s worst spellers. That’s my Kryptonite. If my spell check stops working, I literally have a meltdown because I can’t spell those five dollar words. And some of the nickel words…. but spell check is there for me most of the time. And while I always look at what it has to say, I also read through everything to check the spelling myself, because that’s the biggest fucking thing, dude. If your spelling is shit, no one will listen to a word you have to say — and spell check can’t always catch errors. Like, for example, accept vs. except. Which one do you need? They’re both spelled correctly. But they’re different….
Read your work aloud. I know I already mentioned this above, but I wanted to discuss this method of proofreading down here, too. Take a rough draft, any rough draft — the rougher the better — and just read it to yourself, but do it out loud. This is an old technique writers use to ensure that their prose is following a proper rhythm for the type of piece it happens to be.
Let’s say you’re writing a really exciting fiction scene and the protagonist is being challenged and he’s kicking ass six ways from Sunday. You want to use a lot of short, choppy sentences to really get that heart rate up. When things calm again, you want to go back to softly melodic sentences. Those things are hard to gauge just staring at the page, but when you hear them read, you can tell where the problems are.
The more practiced you get, the more quietly you can read these things. I give you my permission. When it all sounds like a song, when the words flow effortlessly, you’ve found good enough. It’s funny how sometimes the not quite right word will do, contrary to what that asshole Mark Twain had to say on the subject.
Try to write it in one go. Depending on what you’re writing, this may be impossible, but at minimum, write a whole section, a whole thought, all at the same time. This does two things for your writing: first it ensures that the voice remains consistent and number two, it helps you to finish faster and not ramble. Rambling may be fun when your grandfather’s telling stories at Thanksgiving, but it’s not awesome for a commercial writer. Instead of rambling, get to the fucking point, use as few words as possible and kill more when you do your read-through. It’ll be easier to accomplish this if you do the whole piece at once. When you’re done writing, proof it. Right then. And then send it. Just… all in one session, bickety bang.
Don’t begin to pretend you’re flawless. PAH-LEESE. You’re not perfect. Fucking Stephen King, one of the best writers of our age, isn’t perfect. We all have our weak spots. Mine currently is the overuse of the words “often” and “so,” it’s happening so often that I really have to watch what I write so no one notices that it’s often a serious mental stutter for me. So, anyway…. no one is perfect, so know yourself.
Learn what problems you tend to have, that way you can sort of cheatsheet it and look for those items a little extra hard. What hangs you up will change over time, but something always will be a consistent pain. If time is short, just look for those things that you always fuck up. It’s better than half-assing your proofreading.
I’m so glad you joined me today on the blog. Usually I tell you go to fly a kite or something around this point, but instead I’m going to leave you with these immortal words (I seriously can not make this kind of thing up):
“There’s nothing wrong with making friends with nature.
[muttered] One of these days nature is gonna take over and you’re gonna need a friend…”
~Bob Ross, The Joy of Painting, Season 12, Episode 2.