9. You’re probably wrong about how good your writing is.

Sit down. I’m going to tell you something I probably wouldn’t tell you directly in person.

You’re wrong about how good your writing is.

OK, you’re probably wrong. A few of you are right, but damn few. I’ve been working with writers for a long time now, and I have observed two general truisms:

1. Writers who think they’re great aren’t. There are so few exceptions to this, the ones who actually are great are usually famous. Nearly everyone could be better, and if you’re overconfident you get sloppy. If you think your writing is exactly perfect the way it flows from divine inspiration through your fingers to the page, you are just plain old wrong. Please see previous fact about writing being a team effort: other pairs of eyes will see things yours don’t. Also please be aware that perfect in writing doesn’t exist, because aesthetic qualities exist in the perception and the perceivers are messy burning balls of desire and fear, changing from moment to moment and varying wildly from perceiver to perceiver.

In fact, “perfect” is the enemy. It’s an obstacle to effectiveness and efficiency. “Perfectionism” with other people’s writing is dominance behaviour. That boss who is always saying you just need to change this and oh you just need to fix this and no that’s no good you need to do it this way and why did you do that it has to be more like this? That’s just boss behaviour, and by that I mean bossy behaviour, not leader behaviour. And “perfectionism” with your own writing is generally a symptom of anxiety and self-doubt. Which leads to the second truism…

2. Writers who agonize over every word and are sure it’s all terrible are better than they let themselves believe. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily amazing all the time, but it’s usually better than the stuff put out by the people who think they’re perfect. After all, these writers are concerned and conscientious enough to take the time to look over and reevaluate what they’ve written.

But “perfectionists” who agonize endlessly over their writing, revising it incessantly, are not really perfecting it. They’re manifesting anxiety. As I said, perfect in writing doesn’t exist. Sure, you can have better and worse, but there is no one perfect version; there is a nearly limitless set of more-or-less equally effective variations. I’ve worked with incessant revisers, and I’ve seen a good draft be revised by “perfectionism” to another equally good draft and then revised again to another equally good draft and then revised again to another equally good draft and… I’ve also seen a good draft be revised to a not-as-good draft. Sure, revise, because your first draft can almost always be improved (I revised this at least four times), but realize that you get to a point of diminishing returns.

If your writing can’t be perfect, what should it be? Effective. Effective in what? In making readers glad they’ve read it. And in getting them to respond however you want them to respond.

The best approach is to reserve opinion about how good your writing is. However good it is, you know it can probably be at least a little better, but however good it is, you’re not going to make it perfect. So set yourself a walking-away point. A deadline. Think of any piece of writing as like cooking for company: you’re gonna have to serve it; you have guests waiting. Be a little creative, sure, but do things you know will work, and don’t overcook it.

And don’t forget: if you’re doing it for money, you’re part of a team. Don’t waste your teammates’ time and effort.

4 responses to “9. You’re probably wrong about how good your writing is.

  1. Greeting James, Happy New Year! I think you have just about touched on every aspect of the possible interaction between the editor and the writer. I wished you had included the often negative effects of such interaction when it involves an editor and a bilingual writer. I personally have published refereed books in Spanish (Editorial Limusa, Mexico, D.F.) and in English (Penguin Books, Trafford, Inc.). I am sure you remember the many featured articles I wrote for Telicom Journal. I mention all of this because recently Word Press (WP) acknowledged the many successful essays I had written for WP and invited me to publish a free educational website sponsored by WP which only had to link to my own operational, educational website (http://www.delasierra-sheffer.net/home.html/) . WP then assigned an unnecessary site editor who could not communicate and had other commercial ideas in mind. He ruined the good intentions of WP. C’est la guerre! Dr. d

  2. WP has yet to erase the mess left by his affiliate when he failed in setting up “Neurophilosophy of Reality, Life and Consciousness.” Neither has the affiliate returned the money he appropriated without the consent of the author.

  3. Pingback: 12 Days of Gifts for Writers | Sesquiotica

  4. Definitely, agree with all of this, I’ve just started seriously blogging but I’ve tried setting up a schedule for when I should have posts done by and that seems to be working for now.

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