Does writing ever not feel like this?
My current theory, based on working with two completely different types of writers, is that the pursuit of perfection is the enemy of flow, that state from which our best, most creative writing comes.
What? My inner critic recoils at the thought. She is sure that if I don't flog myself with effort, check my own hubris every minute, I shall become a cliche-flinging hack not worthy of the paper we are no longer printed on. You can ignore me for parts of each first draft, but that's it, sister, or you're going straight to the dung-heap of history!
To take control back from my punishing, angry, fault-finding inner editor for just a minute. I am sure that she is wrong. The pursuit of perfection can be the source of problems just as much as it may be the thing that polishes my manuscript like Branson's silverware in Downton Abbey.
Follow me for a minute, and see if you agree.
I work at a fast-paced cloud computing company. We have a wide range of customers, from guys in the field who don't want to spend one second longer on the computer than they have to, to CIOs who do feats of astonishing magic with reports. Our team of talented writers work every day to make life better for our customers. For every new hire, I give a talk on how we attain quality in our technical documentation.
This lecture starts with a brief visit to physics and medicine, where the best minds of those pursuits noticed that: 1. Mistakes are inevitable and 2. It's usually a process, not a person, at fault.
Physicists and doctors can't prevent all mistakes. With all that money, all those machines that go "boop," and all those particle parsers, they acknowledge that they can never be free of error.
Whoa. My inner editor is a little nervous. You see, she has had me frightened of exposing mistakes to the public for a mighty long time. She asks, chin trembling, if we are doomed to make mistakes, should we just give up trying to avoid them?
Well, no. In my quality training, I suggest that instead of focusing all our efforts in trying not to make mistakes, we put some systematic energy into catching them before we publish. Stick with me, as this isn't just a semantic game.
If I know I will make mistakes, then my inner editor's job is no longer to prevent them, and in process cripple my voice or willingness to experiment. Her job becomes to notice the pattern in my mistakes, and develop a system for scrubbing them out before publication.
Self-monitoring, instead of self-excoriation, is a much more pleasant experience.
What's it look like in practice? Lists, usually, both for technical writers and fiction writers, and many reading passes through my own content. Trust me, the seventh time through my own prose, a certain objectivity settles in.
My lists, which I don't look at until the very end of the writing process, include:
- Search for "ly" and evaluate every adverb.
- Search for my crutch words and softeners: very, a lot, slightly, began to, and many others.
- Make a chart of every chapter. Where is the protagonist at in the beginning and the end? Did she change emotional temperature? Did the story move forward? Was character revealed and challenged? (This is what my outline did before I wrote a word, but you know how what you plan to write and what you end up writing can diverge!).
- Search on "eye" and "hair" for color, texture continuity.
- Search for and replace cliches (unless it's dialog, used on purpose).
- Search for and test metaphors and similes (sometimes I get into a "like a hot potato" rut).
- Read and note every plot thread--address the threads that were dropped
- Check the time between violent acts--are characters recovering realistically?
You simply can't do this and write original, strong-voiced material at the same time. Trying to do so leaves me feeling like the Munch painting. Knowing, trusting myself to do this cleanup at the end, after the important things have been created, lifts an incredible burden off my shoulders. I hope it does the same for anyone else who has been struggling to let their writing into the public sphere. Because right now we need those diverse voices, every single one of them!
I've noticed that, statistically speaking, women are far more likely to be of the excoriating variety, and men more likely to think everything they do rocks. (I have plenty of friends and acquaintances, men who excoriate and women who ride self-confidence like a Mavericks curl, just noting the statistical trend). Sheryl Sandburg and a host of psych studies have found the same thing. It makes me wonder if this sad state of affairs contributes to, say, how seldom women are reviewed in the New York Times review of books or nominated for screenwriting Oscars. Sure, there are many other factors at play. But is it possible that we have to let go of the scourge of perfectionism? Somehow we have to grow the confidence to know that making a mistake isn't a problem, unless we don't learn how to correct it.