Thursday, 19 March 2009


Having been involved in the editing process over the last couple of days, I've found myself thinking about perfectionism. After all, editing is about making your work perfect, isn't it?

Well actually, probably not. It is about making something as good as you can make it at the time, certainly, and maybe even the best it can be, possibly. But perfect? I suspect that for my work to be perfect it would require two things: several hundred re-writes and a completely different writer.

I'll take the second part first. I'm not a perfect writer, not by a long way. Then again, neither is any writer I've read, up to and including Shakespeare. The great writers will still have things they don't do so well, or at least not perfectly, while all the rest of us spend our time sidestepping holes in our technique or inspiration to focus on the bits we do well.

Re-writes are the other part of this. Have you ever had something that you've rewritten again and again in the hope of making it perfect before you do anything with it? If you have, my guess would be that it never got sent out. These things can never be quite as good as you want them to be, perhaps because moments of inspiration don't have to bother with awkward things like words.

Where does this urge for perfection come from, anyway? As I just suggested, part of it may be an attempt to live up to a moment of inspiration which can't truly be captured in your preferred medium. Rather more of it may be the example of perfectionist writers and performers who have done quite well as a result. I'm told that the team behind the four Blackadder series got to the point of being utterly obsessive about small points in the script, and the quality of the resulting comedy would seem to be an argument in favour of that approach. Likewise, for those of a more literary bent, Joyce's obsessive pursuit of the perfect words might be seen as the main cause of some of the language's greatest literature.

Personally, I see it as resulting in difficult and awkward literature that is great more for its innovation than for the perfectionism behind it. As for the Blackadder team, as a counter argument, I can only point to Rowan Atkinson's later work with Mr Bean.

The thing is, while a certain amount of concern for quality is obviously a good thing, I suspect that outright perfectionism can do more harm than good. It can turn into a sort of writer's block (or indeed any other sort of block), preventing you from turning out good, enjoyable work because it isn't perfect or important enough. I think I'll settle for being imperfect, thank you.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Loved this post. I've thought a lot about perfectionism, both in writing as well as the other things we do in our lives. I've never considered myself a perfectionist, and never will. I try to do my best at things, but I know there will always be flaws, whether I'm writing a novel or remodeling my bathroom. But the people I've known who call themselves perfectionists, it seems to be a cover for mediocrity. They can't do it well, somewhere deep inside they know they can't, so they put off doing it at all saying they're a perfectionist, and if they don't have time to do it that way they just won't do it. I say get it done, something is better than nothing.

Where I used to work we had a class in personality types, and one was the analytical.. had to have 99.9% of the data before drawing any conclusion, which meant they never did. I'm an expressive, i.e. if I have more than 50% I'm good to go. Maybe the perfectionists are the analyticals? In the end, I think they stifle their creativity, and their lives, by being so. It's not for me...