I understand perfectionism. In some areas of my life, I can see every flaw in what I am doing, and so it feels like everything I do is not nearly good enough.
Good enough for me, that is. But usually, it’s plenty good enough for accomplishing its goal. Let’s take a basic sword strike for an example. My mandritto fendente right now is just a great big mess of inefficiency and flaws. Compared to what it could be, anyway. Compared to what it was five years ago, it’s actually not too bad. I certainly hit a lot of people with it.
That strike is the most common blow in all swordsmanship. What kind of swordsman would I be if I didn’t use it at all, just because it’s not perfect yet? Or if I didn’t expose it to feedback, in the form of resistant opponents or knowledgable peers?
As my writing career has developed, more and more people are coming to me for advice, and excessive perfectionism is one of the more common problems they want help with. It is very hard to let a piece of writing go out into the world when you know it could be better, even when you are well into the realms of diminishing editorial returns, so I thought I’d put together a blog post (laden with imperfect writing, alas) with some mental tricks you can use to make it easier.
Please note that this is intended to help people whose problem is excessive perfectionism. Not to justify sloppy editing or to support writers who let stuff out the door too early. Every published work needs at least two drafts, then editing by at least one, ideally more, external editors, then a final draft incorporating the edits, then proofreading (for typos etc.), then layout, then a final round of proofing, before it should be released. About 10% of the first draft of The Swordsman’s Companion made it into the final version. And I only changed about 5% of that for the second edition. About 90% of the first draft of my second book, The Duellist’s Companion, made it into the final book. (I’m working on a second edition now…)
1. This book is not the final product.
The published book is not the final product. Especially when we are talking about a really discrete work (such as a stand-alone novel, or an interpretation of a specific treatise), it feels like a finished thing in itself, which makes it especially hard to let it go out into the world. But think of this: by denying it publication, you deny it the possibility of perfection. Because you are witholding it from its most keen-eyed critics. The feedback you get from readers who have paid for the book will make the second edition so much better than the first. Look at the first edition as the final editorial pass; the necessary editing round before the second, better edition.
2. This book is only one piece of a larger whole.
Your work over your lifetime is the larger whole. As a training manual, my second longsword book, The Medieval Longsword, is so much better than my first (The Swordsman's Companion). Material I cover in my dagger book I didn’t have to repeat in Veni Vadi Vici. So the work is not finished anyway; any given book is part of an incomplete whole. This lowers the barrier to publication, because it makes each publication feel less of a major event.
3. This book is not the ONE TRUE BOOK.
There is no perfect book. Even a perfect book about swordsmanship, if one could exist, is useless to people who want to learn computer programming. So, this book is the next step in your development as a writer. And it cannot help you develop if it is never published. Because you learn more about what you should have done in it after it’s been published than you can possibly know before.
4. Am I doing my readers a favour?
If you can honestly answer this question with a yes, then publish. You owe it to them. Your book, however flawed, cannot change anybody’s life if you don’t get it off your desk and into their hands. If you’re not sure, then give it to a few likely readers (ideally not your close friends), and ask them if they think the book would be worth paying for. If yes, then go. If no, well excellent, ask them why and you just got another round of editing.
Yes, I just wrote yet another post extolling process over outcome. This is the key to surviving your perfectionist streak. Let every project go out as a work in progress, as a step in the right direction. At the moment of your death, if you have nothing more pressing to think about, you can then review your life’s work and judge it as harshly or as mercifully as you please. Because you will actually have a body of work to look back on, and, for better or worse, it will be finished.
“As good almost kill a man as kill a good book. who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
John Milton, Areopagitica
“Bright books! the perspectives to our weak sights;
The clear projections of discerning lights.
Burning and shining Thoughts; man’s posthume day:
The track of fled souls, and their Milkie-way.
The dead alive and busie, the still voice
Of inlarg’d Spirits …”
Henry Vaughan, To His Books