The Perils of Perfectionism

by | September 21, 2013 | General | 6 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

“The good is the enemy of the
Anonymous proverb

I’m sure most readers have encountered
the maxim above. The point? That it’s a mistake to be satisfied with
“good enough”. By exerting only the minimum effort needed
to fulfill the requirements of some task, you’re missing out on the
opportunity to produce something truly great.

Personally, I subscribe to this
philosophy―up to a point. I believe that when you commit yourself
to something, you should be willing to devote 100% of your effort to
meeting that commitment. That means not making excuses (except of
course in extreme situations like illness or family crises). It means
seriously applying yourself to the problem you’ve shouldered,
spending whatever time is realistically necessary to solving it.

In the so-called real world, I’m a
teacher (among other things). Nothing upsets me as much as a student
who’s happy just to “get by”. That sort of student is wasting
his own time as well as mine. (Please pardon my choice of pronoun. I
don’t mean to imply that this pattern is limited to males.) I don’t
know why he bothers. Sure, he may get a passing grade, but aside from
that, what will he have to show for the months he’s spent in my
class? I’d much rather put my own effort into a poor student who is
really trying to understand the material despite the difficulties
than a more talented individual who isn’t willing to work.

So I definitely think it’s important to
do one’s best―up to a point. At the same time, as an author, I’ve
seen many examples of the perils of perfectionism. I have writer friends who
have been working on the same novel for years, rereading, revising,
going through periodic crises of confidence about whether their book
is really worth publishing. It’s sad. I feel like shaking them.
“Stop already!”, I want to say. “Submit the darn thing! You
can’t publish your work unless you submit it!”

New and aspiring authors, pay
attention! You can’t publish your work unless you submit it. Which
means that at some point you have to stop polishing your prose and
say enough is enough.

The French playwright Voltaire is
credited with the reverse of the saying above: “The best is the
enemy of the good.” When it comes to writing, I think this
statement holds a good deal of truth. There’s no such thing as a
perfect story. If you’re like me, every time you re-read one of your
manuscripts you see some change that might improve it. Don’t give in
to the temptation. Decide ahead of time how many drafts you’re going
to do and stick to that decision. Otherwise, you’ll get bogged down
with one tale and never get a chance to write the others that are
clamoring for your creative attention.

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not
worth agonizing over a single book. You have to submit it, let it go
and move on to your next. If I don’t like what an editor or publisher
has done with something I’ve written, I don’t get my knickers in a
twist. There are more stories where that came from, or at least I
hope there are. This attitude helps me deal with rejection, too.
Maybe I’ll find another home for a rejected tale. Maybe I won’t. In
any case, I need to move on.

Readers are hungry. You have to keep
them fed with a continuing stream of good material. Good, not

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not
excusing sloppiness, poor grammar, spelling errors or wildly-veering
point of view. If you’re a professional writer, you have a
responsibility to learn your craft and apply it to the best of your
ability. The fact is, though, the more you write, the more you hone
your technical skills. If you get hung up revising one work to death,
you’re missing the opportunity to keep learning.

Compared to many authors I know, I do
relatively little editing. I rarely do more than two drafts. I do
have a tendency to edit as I write, reviewing and modifying material
from my last session before settling down to attack the day’s goals,
so my first draft is probably more highly polished than some
authors’. I’m also pretty good with the nuts and
bolts―grammar,spelling, punctuation and the like―so I can focus
on higher level issues like characterization, pacing and emotional
impact even during the initial pass.

Deadlines are a huge help, by the way.
If you’re new to the writing game, let me assure you: deadlines are
your friends! Once you’ve made a commitment to submit a work by a
particular date, you can pace yourself. You can make rational
decisions about how much editing is feasible. You’re not likely to be
caught in the perfectionist trap.

So now I’ll make a possibly
embarrassing admission. I just submitted a 17K story after producing
only a single draft. Am I being lazy? I don’t think so―and in any
case, I didn’t have a choice. I’m leaving in two days for a three
week foreign trip, and I promised the story by October. Plus I have
more deadlines stacked up when I return. It will simply have to be
good enough.

In any case, I’m pretty happy with it.
I’ve found that my best stories tend to be the ones that I write
quickly, the ones where inspiration carries me along. This tale is no
literary masterpiece, but it fits the call for submissions to a T.
And, after reading the blurb, the publisher has asked whether I’d be
willing to write a 60K novel based on the same characters.

I’m going to wait a while before I
commit to that deadline! 

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Thomas Roche

    I've always heard it as "Perfect is the enemy of good enough." I just read it in that form, in relation to the European Parliament.

  2. Jeremy Edwards

    From the Voltaire page at Wikiquote:

    Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

    The best is the enemy of the good.
    "La Bégueule" (Contes, 1772)

    Variant translations:

    The perfect is the enemy of the good.

    The better is the enemy of the good.

    Note: Voltaire cites this saying in his poem "La Bégueule" ("The prude woman") while ascribing it to an unnamed "Italian sage"; he also gives the saying (without attribution) in Italian (Il meglio è l'inimico del bene) in the article "Art Dramatique" ("Dramatic Art", 1770) in the Dictionnaire philosophique.

  3. Jeremy Edwards

    I tend to do a lot of revising of any given piece, but usually I try to keep it all in the same "era" of my writing life. Personally, I feel that if I came back to a work after a year or more had elapsed and began tearing it apart again, it would be a different work from the one I embarked on as the writer I was back then. I'm not talking about writing skill (though I like to think I get better over time, rather than otherwise), but just the fact that my writing sensibilities and inclinations and goals and interests subtly evolve over time. A sentence that I was especially pleased with two years ago might leave me cold now—not because I'd decided it was a poor choice, but just because my focus had shifted. Generally speaking, I don't want to go back in time and tinker with what I was trying to do two years ago.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Jeremy, your attention to detail is just plain scary. I'll never forget your guest post at my blog about finding appropriate period language in The Pleasure Dial. Made me want to hang my head, looking at my own careless attitude!

  4. Fiona McGier

    As a teacher, I've told high school students that no piece of writing is ever really "done"…it can always be improved. So when they get a paper back with a grade, if they're happy they did their best, then accept the grade and move on. If they would like a better grade, then improve the paper and re-submit it. If it gets a higher grade, you'll have learned how to produce a better paper. Unfortunately, other teachers don't like my philosophy, even though very few students will bother to re-do a paper. So I'm stuck as a sub.

    In my own writing, I'll think a manuscript is perfect until the day I get it back from my editor. I'll be horrified, then have to eventually agree with most of the criticisms. So yes, by all means submit, because if it's accepted, your editor will be anxious to point out to you all of the many errors, and you'll get a chance to work them out…most of them.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Fiona,

      I've taken that approach with my students as well (though they're mostly writing software not papers). I don't mean to argue against the notion that improvement is always possible. However, sometimes an obsession with perfection can be damaging to a writer, because it will keep her from moving on.

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