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Imperfect Perfectionism

So you're ready to sit down and write your story. You have performed your rituals and are in the perfect mood. You're sitting at your computer, you have a word document open, the cursor flashing, a blank page in front of you begging to be filled with your brilliant ideas. Go ahead. Type. What's stopping you? Is it the fear that you'll never be as good as the greats? What about that one person in your CW class that always seems to have better prose than you? Dialogue not your thing? Or is your that damn red, squiggly line appearing under your misspelled words? Whatever the reason, I know the feeling and, I imagine, so does every other single writer out there.

While writing this post, I thought of many ways to start it off. After all, the first paragraph is the most important thing to get right if you want your readers hooked. When I say "I thought" about the line, I don't mean I wrote something down and decided to come back to it later. I mean that I sat and thought about it for a good half hour before finally deciding to give up and come back to it later. This is what I call imperfect perfectionism.

The problem with perfectionism is that we, as human beings, don't know what it means to be perfect. Sure, we all think we do, but no one really knows. Or maybe you're reading this and thinking, "Adam, you're not giving me enough credit. I don't claim to be perfect." Fair point. But, I would be surprised, no, astounded, if you have never said in your life, "it's perfect" about anything. In doing so, you have given your own definition to what you perceive as perfection.

It is both a fortunate and unfortunate fact that we live in a world filled with opinions. For one, opinions give us diversity; they allow us to be individuals and think for ourselves. They are allowed to change over time and (hopefully) it's for the better. On the other side of things, there is what we opinionate to be perfect. For example, there are some who might say that Brandon Sanderson is the perfect author and nothing he writes is bad. Although that might be true in some aspects, there are some of his works that I enjoy far better than others. And, there are even some, I could have lived without having read… ever. But that's the beauty of opinions! Because regardless of those titles, Sanderson is still my favorite author, and, in my opinion, the perfect epic fantasy author.

While we’re on the subject of Sanderson, let’s dive into what makes him a “perfect” author. If you’ve ever read one of his books, he has quite a long acknowledgments and preface section before the prologue. Let’s take the preface to Oathbringer, third book in The Stormlight Archive, as an example, he states in the beginning, “Stormlight books are a huge undertaking.” If this isn’t a clear statement of how much work goes into his writing, in general, I don’t know what is. Besides his own writing and draft work, he goes through an extensive process to ensure that the book is as near to perfect before publishing. Including, but not limited to, outline(s), beta and gamma readers, working with his editor, and many, many revisions. He also mentions in his preface for Oathbringer that he had been preparing and outlining the book for nearly two decades. Yet even a great, such as Sanderson, knows that they will only be as perfect as he (an imperfect being) can make them.

So what does all this mean for perfectionism in writing? Well, just like in being human, perfectionism has everything to do with practice. The old saying, "practice makes perfect" may be clichè by now, but it's nonetheless true. I firmly believe that no one will ever become perfect in this life. That is okay. It's alright. Because we are constantly trying to better ourselves. Right? I hope we are, anyway.

Perfectionism is not the easiest thing to deal with, it pops up at all stages of the writer's life, but there are ways to deal with it. For me, I do several things while I’m writing in order to push perfectionism as far away from me as possible. I turn off spell check. I tell myself that in the moment of writing, that whatever I put down on the page will not be perfect. I try my best not to compare myself to other authors. I think about how much I love writing and how much happiness it provides me and that it may one day provide happiness for a reader. One of the best things that has helped is to show what I wrote to someone I trust. This is a scary step for many. Showing your work, part of your soul, is not something that everyone can take lightly, which is why it’s important you choose someone you trust to look at it. For me, that person is my father. I trust him because he had helped me grammatically in the past, but I also chose him for his love of fantasy as a genre. I knew that any critique he gave me came from a good place and it was always constructive. So, when finding someone to help you, make sure you’ve worked with them in some aspect before where they’ve given you good, constructive criticism. A background in English will go a long way, especially if there was/is a focus in creative writing.

So where does this put us? Is it arrogant to say that we are at the same level as Sanderson? In some aspects, definitely. If I were to say that I’m as good a writer as such a man, an easy argument would be: well, why don’t you make as much money as him? Thankfully, I know that I am not on his level or even close to his god-like tier. But like Sanderson, I am comfortable in saying that I know my limits as a writer and I know how good I am on my own versus when I excel on a team. I know when my work has gone through enough revisions that I can say I’ve made the most perfect version of it that I can. That’s not to say that I won’t push my limits or that I won’t study and work to perfect myself further. Rather, it is to say that in that moment, I have reached the highest level I could. But the next day, there is a higher level than that.

So I guess the question, to finish us off, is do you know how perfect you can become?

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