Sometimes Done is Better Than Perfect

I tried approaching my seemingly endless task of writing a book with the mantra “Sometimes done is better than perfect.”  The idea was to use my hour long lunch break as a time to dedicate for writing.  I was doing well for a while, and I managed to practically fill an entire notepad with single-spaced handwritten story.  Unfortunately, not even a month into it and I’m starting to fall off the habit.

I’m not sure what’s gone wrong.  I enjoy writing, I’m happy to be writing every day, and I feel proud and accomplished after every writing session. Furthermore, I’ve been doing it long enough that it’s basically become a habit, so why stop now?

My problem is that I’ve had a few days in a row where I’m doubting myself.  I’m wondering where the story is going.  I’m asking myself why the reader should care.  I’m writing things in the margins like “this section sucks” on days when my creativity is lacking.

I’ve started to lose interest in my own story.

When it comes to novels, I’ve always had this problem.  I never know ahead of time where the story is going.  There’s never an ending planned out.  This is because I try to write the way Stephen King writes:  I take an ordinary person, put them in an extraordinary situation, and see how things play out.  Unlike King, though, I’m unable to write 20 pages per day…  I’m spent after only four.

Another issue is that every time I sit down to continue where I left off, what I really want to do is page through what I’ve already written.  Revising something I’ve already written is a billion times easier than writing something new.

Sad thing is, I’ve been down that road before.   I once wrote an opening to a manuscript where I introduced characters and gave some foreshadowing as to the upcoming story.  When I went to write the next chapter, I re-read what I had already written, and then decided to change it — because it wasn’t perfect.  The next time I went to start the next chapter, I needed to re-read the opening thinking “I need to remember where I left off.”  Once again, I improved the opening instead of writing something new.

Every time I sat down to continue the story, I chose to edit the existing intro instead of start the next chapter.  Nothing new was ever being created.  I must have spent three months revising the same ten pages — and what for?  For a story that nobody knows because I never told it!

It was the first in my long list of incomplete books.

I’m frustrated because I want to write, I desperately want to be successful at it — and somehow I always fail.  I’ve gone so far as to create a designated writing room in my apartment (a 5′ x 9′ space that’s simply a writing desk behind a door) to help me commit to my craft — but I don’t use it!

My excuse is that I don’t have a laptop for the room.  I have to use pen and paper.  It’s a lame excuse.

You see, I create these obstacles that don’t really exist so that I can have an excuse for failing at what I’ve set at to do without feeling too bad about it:

“I can’t write without a dedicated writing space.”  So then I create it.
“I need a dedicated laptop for my writing space.”  So then I research laptop prices.
“I can’t afford to spend that much on something I can live without.”  So now I’ve resigned to the idea that I’ll wait until my birthday before I spend a few thousand dollars on myself.

But I suspect that even after I have my dedicated writing laptop in my dedicated writing room, I will most likely allow some other obstacles to get in my way.  I imagine I’ll use the excuse “Well since I’ve been at work all day and Cassie’s been home alone all day, it’s probably best if I spend the evening with my girlfriend, and not alone in my writing room.”

I dunno.  There’s this certain sense of urgency, a yearning for immediacy, that I approach my goals with.  I want results, and I want them now.  Despite the fact that I know how I need to put in the hours and work towards my goals gradually, I impatiently try to will them into fruition without doing anything but whining about how hard it is!

For me, “Sometimes done is better than perfect” would be the ideal approach to actually create a story instead of just another unfinished story, but the process wears on my patience and conflicts with my incessant desire to create “good” writing.  Consequently, I tend to throw in the towel before I finish anything.

Does anyone else struggle with this?  How do you deal with it?

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18 Responses to “Sometimes Done is Better Than Perfect”

#1 Francis on 18, Aug, 2009 at 10:52 am

This happens to me with writing and drawing. Sadly, I haven’t dealt with it yet although there come times when I try to make the most of the period of creativity I’d be in to try and move ahead. But there is always the compelling urge to revise and make what has gone before better. I’m rarely happy with anything I do.

I guess that yours is the best approach–sometimes done is better than perfect. I’ll try it and let you know.

#2 John Comberiate on 18, Aug, 2009 at 11:01 am

This happens to me frequently. It’s always easy to start a project, launching quickly into it with all that first burst of creativity and energy. Then over time, it dissipates or is replaced with something new.

I think it all comes back to goals. First you set the goal, and you follow the S.M.A.R.T. formula that I’m sure you’ve heard of in the past. The second step is the harder part though. It’s determining the reason why you want to do it.

I still struggle with the why. Usually it has to be something greater than yourself, or even doing it for someone else. I suggest talking to your supportive girlfriend about what she likes and committing yourself to dedicating a book that you write, and finish, to her.

#3 DeanKRyan on 18, Aug, 2009 at 12:37 pm

First of all: Bless your heart for writing about this.

I’m a lurker; I’ve read most, if not all, of your posts since the inception of your blog, and I identify with much of what you’ve shared over the last couple of years. But this post touches on something I’m figuring out myself. So I’m coming out of hiding.

I used to write short stories when I was younger. English classes were my favorite, and creative writing assignments were always the first ones I tackled and the first ones I completed. This continued through college. I wanted to impress my teachers – especially the mentors who actively encouraged me. I wanted their guidance, and I felt safe writing for them, because I knew that while they might be critical of my writing, they wouldn’t be cruel. And I wrote for pleasure and escape, too. I seemed to have no shortage of imagination or will to write.

And yet, for a variety of circumstances, I didn’t become a writer. Despite the encouragement, despite any talent I may have had, despite the skill and craft I was developing, I didn’t pursue it as a career. I just turned 30 last month and I still don’t know how to get what I want. I stopped writing regularly almost eight years ago.

I came back to writing in late summer of 2007. What brought me back to it was a desire to tell a story…and that no matter how bogged down I got in details, or in flogging myself for not getting it “right” or “perfect,” I wasn’t going to give up on it. I knew it was a good story, and it might take me a long time to spit it out. And I’ve generated a lot of material for it – background notes, character development, half-finished scenes…but very little actual story. I’ve stopped writing for months at a time…and yet I keep coming back to it.

Throughout it all, I get impatient with myself, I want results, I can see the completed idea/project/writing in my mind… why can’t I just DO it? Why do I have to WORK at it, struggle with it, fight for it? Why can’t I create it as easily as I can imagine it?

I’ve been plagued by this my entire adult life. But this time, I’m changing my response to these thoughts. It’s a slow process, this change, but my relationship to writing is changing with it.

I don’t know if this is part of your experience, but part of my perfectionism is telling myself that I SHOULD be writing an hour every day… I SHOULD be turning out more words/pages/scenes when I write… I SHOULD be more disciplined.

Well, you know what? I’m not Stephen King, and neither are you. Besides, he’s been at this for thirty years; we’re still struggling to get started. Drawing comparisons does us a great disservice because we’re deliberately trying to make ourselves out to be better or worse than someone else, who has his or her own vast array of problems, talents and priorities that we can’t possibly know.

I can’t write an hour every day. I can’t turn out more material in one sitting. I can’t be more disciplined. All because that is simply not who I am. Instead, I have to learn to accept that I am doing the best I can.

I’m learning, little by little, to accept that I am not perfect, that I am not more disciplined. That is not who I am. And I’m learning to silence that perfectionist voice, to remove the word SHOULD from its vocabulary (if not silence it altogether) because of how obstructive it becomes. Beating ourselves up because an inner voice tells us we aren’t good enough does not help us accomplish our goals.

It’s accepting what we are capable of, and letting that be enough. We are each of us doing the best we can.

So, my writing isn’t perfect, and neither am I. I still get hung up on revising what I wrote before instead of writing something new. I’m doing the best I can.

I get angry for only writing 250 words instead of 1000 like I did last time I wrote. I’m doing the best I can.

I may write three or four times one week, and not at all for two weeks after that. I’m doing the best I can.

And that is slowly becoming enough. It doesn’t mean I’m not trying to develop discipline. I am. But I’m not going to get there overnight. I won’t get there at all if I keep stopping myself. If I want it, I have to fight for it. And my relationship to writing has become important enough that I am fighting for it.

Sometimes done IS better than perfect. But I would argue that done is ALWAYS better than perfect. “Done” is real – it is tangible and comes with a sense of accomplishment. “Done” allows us to make mistakes, to be human, and to live life in our own time, according to our own schedule, not one that has been imposed upon us by perfectionism.

I know I haven’t addressed the whole range of issues you’ve shared in this post – losing interest in the work, needing the perfect time/space to write, etc. – which I’ve also been struggling with.

If you have further thoughts on this, I would be interested in hearing from you. In the meantime: Be patient. Give yourself room to breathe. Write; or don’t: whatever you feel like. You are doing the best you can.

*HUG*

~Dean

#4 Carissa Starr on 18, Aug, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I have very much the same problem. For me being accountable to someone other than myself helps. I have a writing partner and I have an editing partner. Both are good at taking what I’ve written (even just a section at a time, not a full chapter) and giving me feedback but also demanding more. It’s the demanding more part that helps, its not only an encouragement in that I know I’m writing something that at least one other person wants to read, but that one person is also hounding me. “Is it done yet?” “Where’s the next chapter?” “Why isn’t this script done? I need to know what happens.”

#5 Cassie on 18, Aug, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Dean: What a well-written comment. It was like reading another article on the subject. Thank you for your thoughts and good luck in your writing endeavors. You shouldn’t be so “lurkish,” you have well thought out and interesting ideas –not to mention an talent for writing them down and sharing them.

#6 DeanKRyan on 18, Aug, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Cassie: Thank you. Thank you very, very much.

I found a quote by Theodore Roosevelt who put it much more succinctly: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

No one can ask for more than that.

#7 Digitist on 20, Aug, 2009 at 5:04 am

Maybe you should take another approach. The Steven King method doesn”t work for you (yet).

Write down a synopsis of the story you want to tell. Describe in a few scentences what the story is about. Then define the characters (name, gender, relations to others etc), locations, situations etc.
Then decide what you gonna write: a short story, a book or a novell.

Don’t fall in the pit of constantly rewriting the opening of your story. Put an opening to paper and leave it be and commence to the rest of the story. When the story is all written out, you then can change parts of it. But at least you”ve completed a story.

See how screenwriters go about it: http://www.screenwriting.info/ or http://www.scriptfrenzy.org/introtoscreenwriting

Another thing is make up your mind what to use for your writings. Pen & Paper or a computer. With a computer you can use software to aid you in entrusting the story to paper.

Or you could learn from storytellers. I mean people that physically tell their own stories to others.

@ John Comberiate
translate.google.com: http://www.markensteijn.com/smart.htm

As said before I write technical computer stuff for a magazine. The first year I did pieces of 150 words and now (5th year) I do pieces up to 3 pages long. Can I do bigger pieces? I don’t know, but when time comes I will.
So start with a short story (max 10 pages) to get a good feeling about starting, editing, rewriting and finally completing a story.

Another thing you could do is attending a writers class (or school). You get to meet people that have similar interest and problems. Writing doesn’t have to be a lonely task.

Shaun: So to get you started, why don’t you publish here a synopsis of a 10 page story and a very rough timetable of actions and a publishing date of the story.
I’m looking forward to reading your story.

#8 Digitist on 20, Aug, 2009 at 5:28 am

I came across this for the Mac:

http://www.tuaw.com/2009/08/19.....ting-tool/

#9 melissa on 26, Aug, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Have you ever read Stephen King’s book On Writing? One of the appendices shows a manuscript of his: more than half of it is crossed out. My point is not that you should edit more mercilessly but that Stephen King wrote a lot of crap in the process of writing bestsellers. He waited until after it was written to decide what he wanted to keep. Just keep writing Shaun, and be willing to write the worst crap in the world as long as you are writing.

#10 Kate on 30, Aug, 2009 at 12:24 am

I’m sorry to be negative but what is the end result that you are hoping for? If your goal is to get the novel published it might be difficult in the current state of the publishing industry. Whereas writing a novel is admirable goal in its own right, if you are looking for some type of financial/social return, perhaps you should reconsider how sellable this novel is.

#11 Shaun Boyd on 30, Aug, 2009 at 8:38 pm

@DeanKRyan
What an excellent write-up. It truly was like reading another article on the subject. I like the mantra “I’m doing the best that I can” in the way that you describe it, but part of me thinks it’s subject to misinterpretation. “I’m doing the best that I can” can be rather defeating when viewed from a pessimist’s point of view. Still, when I say it to myself I feel the load on my shoulders lighten a bit.

@Carissa Starr
Holding your progress accountable to someone else is a method I’ve heard before. When I started teaching myself to play the piano, Cassie always told me that I would learn quicker with an instructor. They’d keep me focused and I’d not want to let them down before I met up for a new lesson, so I’d practice more often. Good suggestion.

@melissa
I listened to On Writing as an audiobook read by Stephen King himself. I didn’t see the revisions and crossouts and whatever else he edited, but I think I knew his rewrites were thorough. I also heard somewhere that you can expect your first million words to be throwaway writing…

@Kate
The end result that I’m hoping for is… to write a novel that ends. I’m not writing for the financial return — (I’ve tried writing for a living and made well below the poverty line) — I’m writing out of necessity. I’m a writer, and if I go for too long without writing something I get really fidgety and miserable. I enjoy the process and feel good after a writing session. It’s my escape from the pressures of the world. I just can’t seem to stop doing it, no matter what stage of my life I’m in.

#12 Alex C on 31, Aug, 2009 at 8:48 pm

I read somewhere that J.K. Rowling said of her Harry Potter books “Nobody has as much fun reading my books than I do writing them.” (I hope it wasn`t from this site!)
I agree with DeanK: Write, or don`t write. The important part for me is to enjoy whatever I`m doing at the moment – and if it`s writing, then to enjoy myself in the best way with it.

Also, I really like this site on JK Rowling`s writing process (“10 things JK Rowling taught me about writing”): http://michellerafter.wordpres.....t-writing/
As you can see (at least from this writer’s point of view) she really went through a lot of hard times herself to write and have a lifestyle for writing. I think if you talk to any writer/artist they will tell you the same. Nothing just flowed out from their fingers; it took a lot of effort, thinking, and revision.

I recently read the book “Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson and I was impressed by his way of telling the story; not directly from beginning, buildup, suspense, and then climax, but instead through patches and glimpses of people’s thoughts through a chronological series of events. It`s a huge book and I could sense his enthusiasm for telling the story, both in the volume and the rich content he put in it. Maybe you could also experiment with different ways of telling the story.

By the way, I really like your blog. Your writing is crystal clear and I feel a real connection to what you say. I hope you’ll update it more frequently!

#13 Life Lessons: 09/02/09 « Musings and more on 01, Sep, 2009 at 9:03 pm

[...] line with the life lessons from yesterday and today. In this interesting and honest post again by Shaun Boyd, he mentions how “sometimes done is better than perfect”. I can absolutely relate to [...]

#14 Sarah on 15, Sep, 2009 at 12:00 am

I do much better with academic or nonfiction writing than trying to create something without parameters, but I also run into some blocks trying to craft the perfect sentence or get everything right.
Some good advice I have found useful is something a few commenters have touched on: just get the words on the page, stream-of-consciousness style if necessary, and then edit to your heart’s content (especially if that’s the fun part anyway).

The other thing I wanted to mention was regarding the feeling that you shouldn’t use your after-work time for writing when you could be spending it with Cass. I know we’re all feeling a little differently about life/family/precious-moments lately, but one thing I’ve had to learn the hard way about cohabitation is that you need to take that personal time each day, even if its just a half-hour sometimes, and just do your thing. It makes you feel productive and happier, and that is what makes you a better friend and partner.

Love you guys!

#15 Chaz on 02, Oct, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Hi,

I was wondering if anyone has the problem where they know what to say but not the words to say it? I have that problem some days more than others and it aggravates me to no end. How do you overcome that?

Chaz

#16 anthony on 25, Oct, 2009 at 12:24 pm

“I’m sorry to be negative but what is the end result that you are hoping for? If your goal is to get the novel published it might be difficult in the current state of the publishing industry. Whereas writing a novel is admirable goal in its own right, if you are looking for some type of financial/social return, perhaps you should reconsider how sellable this novel is.”

Shaun: The date of this article says Aug 18th. Is there going to be a revision posted soon. WAIT, you have written something, completed it in its entirety AND PUBLISHED IT. How did you do that. Did you have a date set to complete this item. (Aug 18th).

Salable or not, doesn’t matter. An writer writes for the craft not the finances (IMHO) Difficult or not, publishing it merely becomes the next S.M.A.R.T. goal to achieve. Look for solutions and put them into action, not create further barriers. Deal with the publishing when the book is finished. Goal: To complete a novel by Nov 30th.

Use the same approach. I will write 5-10 pages a day without review. After one week I will do a quick review of what I have written and then continue to write another 5-10 pages day, focusing on where the story is going (plot development). Review the latest 35-70 pages and then work on the conclusion for the next week. At the end of the month I will give my 150-300 pages to someone to review, edit…..
I will revise in 3 sections of 100 pages per week then resubmit.

I have a coffee table book (inspiration and affirmation), each page consists of a photo I have taken, along with a “quote: an inspiration, an affirmation, a statement” I felt suited the picture and my mood. It is complete on my compute. Is it published, not yet. Will it be published, who knows. I did it because I wanted to. I use the statements in my counselling sessions (I write a new one each day on the top of a whiteboard in my room). My clients notice them and we often discuss them. I may not have the book published but clients are utilizing what’s in my books. To me that is a success.

CONCLUSION: Shaun: when can we expect your announcement of completion of your first novel….a date.

#17 anthony on 25, Oct, 2009 at 12:29 pm

RE: Sometimes done is better than perfection.

Can’t think of a situation where “sometimes perfection is better than not done. ”

How about:
Imperfectly done is always better than not done – perfectly.

#18 Mo on 04, Dec, 2009 at 12:46 am

***Disclaimer: I didn’t read the other comments yet. If someone already said what I’m about to say then good! I’m still gonna say this because I want to live without the regret of not being completely myself.***

Wow. Reading this reminds me of how great it felt in grade school to be with my other G/T classmates where we all worked so hard on a project because ‘good’ could always be improved! With that said… Here are my thoughts:
1) Hellooooo (in a Billy Crystal voice, of course)! You are writing! Cut yourself some slack. You wrote this blog, the last one, and you are already thinking through another. You wrote enough to fill a notepad and probably more since then. You, yourself, are a work in progress as is your novel. You are growing into the successful writer role. You have the ‘writer’ part of it down, and you are sharpening your tools daily as you write.
2) Yes, this is where I am also. ***Done is better than perfectly undone.*** With a small series of miracles, I might actually pass Algebra after all these years (and attempts, gulp). I will be DONE and it certainly hasn’t been perfect, but I have given myself permission to accept C and D grades for this class. After writing a paper for my other class, my professor advised me not to give sooooo much (because she knew I am also a single mom who works full time and am struggling to remain in school). She attempted to help me see ‘adequate’ as okay sometimes, but that is difficult for me to accept. I will admit that on my last paper for her, I prepared and wrote my four pages in an hour and a half, estimated it worth a C, and submitted it. My experience with professors tells me I will be given an A, but I know it could have been soooo much better. It wasn’t perfect, but it is thankfully done.
3) You are successful already! Your blog is approaching 200 followers (if I read that correctly) whom you inspire and encourage with your writings. You have talent, which you know. People will always want to read something you write. I understand measuring it a success if you actually make a decent amount of money off of it, but writing one free blog entry that inspires someone is also a success in my estimation. (As for those editing you: WHATever! They totally didn’t read that you are already your own worst critic….so merely skim their stuff too. Writing takes guts. It means making yourself vulnerable–even naked–before the whole world and all of posterity, but no guts, no glory!)
4) Please keep writing. I can’t believe I actually found something worth reading! Keep up the good work!!

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