Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Perfect or Published


I had been fussing around with my Master's thesis for a couple of years. I wanted to get everything perfect. It had taken me more than a  year just to choose a topic. My most recent perfection detour was tracking down some obscure legal procedure in colonial courtrooms during the time of the Salem witchcraft trials. I was writing a reader's theatre script based on the transcripts of the trial of Sarah Good.

Apparently frustrated with my progress (or lack thereof), my professor looked at me and said, "I'm going to tell you what my advisor told me. There are two types of dissertations: The Perfect One and The finished One.

After 30 years of teaching writing, I have paraphrased that often enough for my perfectionist students as "The Perfect Manuscript and The Published Manuscript."

We have made a type of God out of perfectionism. We say someone is a perfectionist as though that is a good thing. However, true perfectionism paralyzes professionalism. The perfectionist won't let go of a project until it is perfect.

What's wrong with that? You say. The problem is that the perfectionist will always find one more thing to fix. Nothing is ever perfect. The curse of the human mind is that it can conceive perfection but never achieve perfection.

Both Indie and Traditional writers can fall prey to the peril of perfectionism. Indies often wait to publish their first book until they can get everything perfect. They keep redoing the cover design (or sending it back time and time again to a long suffering graphic designer), they know there is a comma they missed somewhere, a line that left too many spaces between words when justified, one obscure ereader that adds a space where a space is not needed. And the list goes on.

The traditional writer lives in fear of the editor/agent/publisher. If everything doesn't match Chicago Manual of Style perfectly, if they missed one point of the guidelines, if the story needed any editing at all, they fear they will be blackballed throughout the industry never to write again.

The problem with this type of thinking is that the perfectionist's fears produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are afraid that if they don't do everything perfectly they won't get published, but by being afraid to publish anything that isn't perfect, they end up unpublished longer than the person willing to trade out the notion of perfectionism with excellence.

So, what is the difference between perfectionism and excellence? Perfectionism says if there is even one flaw no matter how miniscule, the product is worthless.

Excellence says one does the best job one can with the resources they have available in the time allotted for the job.

Professionalism says you put out a workable product that fulfills the consumer needs at a price they can afford in a timely manner.

Successful writers are not perfectionists because their products never see the light of day. However, that does not mean they don't strive after excellence and professionalism.

The perfect manuscript is an illusion which will take away all hope of publication. At some point you have to say the imperfections are so minor that they will not affect the reader's enjoyment of this story. Or like a good engineer would say, they are within acceptable tolerances.

So, what will you do today. Continue to chase the rainbow of Perfection or Pursue the possibility of publication.

1 comment:

  1. I disagree with your definition of excellence. According the Merriam-Webster, excellent is " very good of its kind : eminently good : first-class." First class is defined as "of the highest quality." It's not just the best you can do. There's a higher standard for excellence.

    If an engineer designs a bridge that collapses in the wind, can we call the bridge an "excellent" work? I don't think so. If a student misspells every other word in an essay, but that's the best he can do, would you call the essay "excellent"? I wouldn't.

    I'm not disagreeing with your premise that waiting for perfection before publication is foolish, since no one is perfect--not traditional publishers, not self-published authors, not anyone. But a writer should be able to recognize when a work is not up to a minimal standard, to know that a work should not be released into the world just yet, if ever. We all have those "under the bed" novels waiting for revision when we know more about our craft, or so broken they are impossible to fix. It does no one any good to keep submitting them or to throw them up on Amazon, hoping the problems will be overlooked.