Perfection? Fuggedaboudit!

I attended a writer’s panel recently to hear my wife talk about her writing experiences as a contributor to an anthology of short stories (she did a bang-up job!). During the Q&A session following the panel discussion, a young woman asked a question.

“How do you manage to get it perfect? I’m always discouraged by my first efforts and I end up putting it aside for months.”

I felt like jumping up on my chair and screaming, while at the same time pulling at my beard. “Perfect? You expect perfect the first time? You judge yourself by that impossible standard? Aaaagh!!”

The truth is that first drafts are never perfect. Far from it. I have been writing professionally for more than four decades now. I have written more than 650 published pieces in newspapers, major national magazines, corporate publications and online. I have now completed four full-length novels. I have taught writing and served as an editor for a national journal. And I have never, ever seen a first draft that has passed muster, whether my own, a student’s or a top pro.

So, here’s my point. Write! Shut off that destructive inner critic and just write. Get it down on paper (or electronic bytes), whatever it is you are writing about. Grammatical mistakes? Spelling errors? Changes in tense? I’d be horrified if anyone ever saw what crap I throw on paper in my first drafts.

Oh, that’s not to say that I sometimes don’t turn out a phrase that rolls off the tongue like butter on a feverish tongue (okay, okay, that was a first draft!!), but for a full piece of work, whether an essay or a chapter, my first draft will typically see several revisions. My first historical novel, The First Pharaoh, went through nine drafts. When I look back on the first draft of Chapter One I try to figure out who broke into my computer to write that garbage.

But here is the point; I never took that first draft seriously. I looked at that as a starting point. I did not allow myself to criticize it. I looked at it as a momentum builder, a confidence booster. I was off the line and racing for the finish.

Writing is hard work. No, it’s not like carpentry or farming, but it is mentally and emotionally exhausting. It is a lonely profession and requires incredible discipline. My hat goes off to several of my women colleagues who manage to scrape out two hours here and there between car pooling, a day job, and a bad night’s sleep.

But, you’ll never get anywhere if you are seeking perfection right off the bat. There is only one way I know of to get the job done, and that’s to write, write, and write some more. If you can’t shut off the inner critic and do that, you’re never going to be the writer you’ve always dreamed of.

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