How do you prepare for imperfection?

Reading time: About 3 minutes 

Has it ever occurred to you to plan for the worst while hoping for the best? This is precisely why preparing for imperfection is such an integral part of the writing process.

If I had a dollar for every person who told me they couldn’t write because they were a “perfectionist,” well, I wouldn’t need to write this column because I could afford to sit on a beach in the Caribbean and sip Mai Tais right now.

The bigger issue for people who don’t write is that they usually have poor impulse control. This means that they can’t stop themselves from checking email or Facebook — or worse, going out for coffee or beer with friends — when they ought to be writing. I learned this nugget during an interview with Piers Steel, the author of the terrific book The Procrastination Equation.

But there is one way in which being a perfectionist can really undo you and that’s by making you feel surprised when things go wrong. Perfectionists usually imagine there is just one thing they need to do in order to finish a task. For the sake of argument, let’s say they decide they need to muster the determination to spend five hours writing a report. Spend those five hours, they figure, and they’ll finish the report and their supervisor will be super impressed.

And what do you imagine happens next?

First, of course they’re going to have difficulty finding the five hours. We’re all busy people and we have many demands on our attention. Can you remember the last time you had five entire hours that were unspoken for? (I’m guessing the answer is no.) So, this is where the perfectionist — let’s call him or her Morgan — first goes wrong. Morgan doesn’t think to break the task into smaller, more manageable portions.

But let’s be wildly optimistic and assume Morgan does find the five hours. The next problem — which crops up immediately — is that Morgan doesn’t feel inspired. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer seems dull and boring and Morgan immediately starts to feel “hemmed in.” Morgan expects that writing is a creative activity and needs to feel inspired. (Morgan is unfamiliar with the Peter de Vries quote: “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”)

But let’s renew our optimism and imagine that Morgan experiences a minor miracle and manages to break through the first 15 minutes and is able to start putting words on the screen. In fact, things even go reasonably well for the first 30 minutes but then, oh no, Morgan hits a road block. This writing business is much harder work than he or she had imagined. Morgan looks at the clock. There are 4.5 more hours to go. Yikes! That’s going to be intolerable.

Now let’s put our optimism on life support and imagine that, somehow, Morgan manages to persist for the five hours and produces a crappy first draft. He or she reads it and becomes totally deflated because the writing is not nearly as good as expected or hoped. “I really can’t write,” Morgan concludes. “I shouldn’t have wasted those five hours on this dreck.”

Morgan’s mistake, however, was not being a bad writer. The error was failing to make a plan for all the things that can — and often will — go wrong. If you are a perfectionist who feels there’s just one thing you need to do to be able to write (usually, have enough time), take the time to prepare for the following obstacles:

  • The lure of procrastination: When you get an assignment, begin it right away, at the very least by making a plan that will allow you to do a little bit of work daily, over a longer stretch of time. Working 20 minutes a day over 15 days is vastly more effective (and less dispiriting and exhausting) than working for five hours straight, even though the time investment is exactly the same.
  • The feeling of being overwhelmed that comes with any big job: Always break big (or medium-sized) jobs into smaller ones. I finished this post you’re reading now in five parts: 1) I thought of the idea a month ago, (2) I wrote a rough draft last Thursday (3) I had a friend read it last Friday morning, (4) I edited it Friday afternoon, (5) I found a photo and posted it to my blog yesterday.
  • The need for rewards: People often tell me this idea seems silly or too self-indulgent. But it’s not! If your boss offered you a raise (or even theatre tickets or a dinner at a nice restaurant) would you turn it down? Of course not! But bosses don’t do any of these things very often so it’s important for you to reward yourself. The reward doesn’t have to be expensive (or unhealthy.) Consider lattes, specialty teas, magazines, a nice lunch out or even time on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve been writing this blog for 16 years now so I no longer need to reward myself for it. But I did when I started. And I still do whenever I take on a job that’s new or in any way daunting.

Finally, recognize that a crappy first draft — really crappy — should not discourage you; it should make you happy. In fact, you should ASPIRE to having a crappy first draft, because it is proof you were able to write without editing. (We all need editing, of course, but the best time to do it is after writing, after you’ve taken a break.)

None of us is perfect, particularly not me. That’s why I always plan for disaster. And if disaster doesn’t occur, I can enjoy being very pleasantly surprised.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on March 7/17.


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How do you plan for disaster when you’re writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Susannah, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a comment on my blog post about mistakes.  (Please send me your email address, Susannah.) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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