The Fallacy of Perfection

There are a couple hard truths about writing, and I suppose with the creative arts in general. 

Depending on how you define it, Perfection is either unattainable or it does not exist. Sure, there are certain types of perfection, like a perfect circle… but that’s about it. Even then, when you start examining that perfect circle close enough, you can probably find tiny micromic deviations that mar it. 

So for the purposes of this blog post, what is perfection? Perfection is the idyllic standard that robs an author of sharing a good story. 

When most writers think of perfection in regards to writing, they either think of 1) writing the perfect story that will appeal to all readers, or 2) they think of editing and polishing their current work-in-progress until it is perfect–until every line and every word shines on the page. 

  1. Let’s destroy definition number 1 right now: Not everyone will love your story or even like your story. Some people flat out don’t like to read. Genres exist for a reason. Some people enjoy romance, others loathe it. Some like Sci Fi but not Fantasy, and vice versa. You will never write a story that appeals to all readers. 
  2. This is harder, because most sane people agree that a book should be as error-free and internally consistent as it can be. Typos = bad. Repeat words = generally bad. Plot holes = bad. No one’s going to fight you on those. But the problem comes when you start drilling too deep into the sentences and words. 

Let’s take Lord of the Rings as an example. Barring preferences for songs and worldbuilding (perfection #1), most would say that Lord of the Rings is a pillar of the genre. But, I bet you can go through and find sentences that could be done better, or metaphors that could be better. Even Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost, probably have sentences that could be better—and these are epic poems! Poetry is already constrained by meter and rhyme to be musical—to be perfect writing—in a literary sense. 

But maybe that’s the key phrase—”could be better”. 

Sure, you can rework your story into oblivion, agonizing over every chapter and every sentence. You could make it better. You might make it better. But will you? Consider the following two points. 

  1. There’s diminishing returns when reworking a story. We’ve already established that 100% perfection isn’t attainable. If we go by letter grades, once you get your story to an ‘A’ or a ‘90% perfect’, how much longer will it take to bump it up from a 90 to a 95? Or 95 to 96? The closer we try to get to 100%, the longer each percentage point takes and the more impossible the task becomes. 
  2. Remember that because of genre, a huge portion of readers aren’t going to read your story anyway. Out of those that do read your story, most aren’t going to care or notice the difference between a 90% and a 95% or a 98%. An ‘A’ grade is an ‘A’ grade. The only difference is the months or years you wasted chasing a few percentage points. 
  3. Lastly, most writers will never make money on a single book, some not even on a single series. The conventional wisdom is to write more books. Every percentage point you chase from 90% upward is wasted time that you could spend writing another book.

I’m using a letter grade because it’s something we’re all familiar with. A ‘A’ grade is exceptional and the highest grade that you can receive. Colleges don’t give a shit if you got a 100% in all your classes or a 95% or a 90%–an ‘A’ is an ‘A’. Anything after that is wasted time. 

Maybe that flies contrary to what most of us are taught about “art”, but at the end of the day, if you want to be an author and get paid decently to do it, then you need to write more books—not slave over one. 

I love writing. The more I do it, the more I believe that it’s what I was meant to do. You know how I get to write more? By putting out good enough books and enough of them that I can do this gig full time. I can’t do that by slaving over one book. Shit, even Tolkein wrote more than one. 

Let’s bring it all back home: The idea of perfection is subjective to begin with. If it doesn’t exist on a story level, then it definitely doesn’t exist on a line-by-line level.  Most sentences in a story are serviceable—and they should be! Sentences should do exactly what is required of them. Perfection doesn’t exist in large scale because of genre. And it doesn’t exist in the small scale either. 

What we writers should all be striving for is trying to write a cohesive story that satisfies readers of the genre, that is internally consistent and (nearly) error-free. Shoot for an ‘A’ and don’t kill yourself struggling to make a great story into a perfect story. Don’t waste time going from a 90% to a 95%. 

I had to add that “nearly error-free” part in there because there will always be errors in your writing. Even traditionally public books with a dozen eyes on them still have errors. Hell, when you’re writing a long book, the odds are statistically against you that something will slip through. 

I guess we can sum it up with this: Perfection is a myth, and don’t be so damn hard on yourself chasing it.

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