Perfectionism vs. Progress: When Is Good Good Enough?

  • How good does your manuscript have to be before you submit it to an agent or editor?
  • How good does your website need to be before you launch it?
  • How good does your performance need to be before you debut?
  • How good do your recordings need to be before you release them?

People who are passionate about what they create—whose lives are defined by what they create—will often emphasize quality above all else, and can be unrelenting perfectionists.

It’s something I deeply admire. I like people who don’t compromise on quality, especially when what they create so closely represents (or IS) who they are.

On the other hand, I’ve seen many journeys come to an absolute stand still due to perfectionism. It can prevent people from making progress.

It’s impossible to be perfect the first time out when writing a novel. But maybe it’s as perfect as you can make it given where you’re at in the journey.

It’s like what Ira Glass has said: There is the excellence (or quality) you can see and appreciate—and then there is what you’re actually capable of.

This can cause paralysis.

The Conductor and I had a minor disagreement on the issue when discussing a Cincinnati musician who’s talented, but a perfectionist. I wondered if this musician was getting too hung up on the details that wouldn’t ultimately affect his success. The Conductor felt like perfectionism was absolutely required to set this musician apart from others—it was to be commended.

And I have to admit, I always want writers to slow down, and not rush to submit, and take the utmost care and consideration in revising and preparing their material for agents and editors. And to be tough on themselves.

But deep down, I wonder if some of us use perfectionism as an excuse, which results in self-sabotage—when we fear the result of putting our work out there, when we fear being rejected, when we fear failing.

credit: Gustavo G

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24 thoughts on “Perfectionism vs. Progress: When Is Good Good Enough?

  1. Jane Friedman

    WOW! I am so grateful & humbled by all the wonderful comments. Thanks to all.

    A few additional thoughts:

    * There are many works that are so fussed over that you can see the sweat in them. That’s no fun. Perfection needs to look easy to be perfection! When I’m driven to perfectionism, it’s always so I can be thought a genius (shy smile), but only want to be seen as a genius if it appears I wasn’t even trying! It all depends on who I think is watching, what I have to gain from an A+ performance, and how important the topic/subject/effort is to my identity.

    Where I struggle is when I don’t feel I’ve reached QUALITY (or "perfection"), but I’m at a loss as to a solution. Sometimes, I just have to let it go. And is that OK? Maybe.

    In my mind, perfection is either what you envision to be your best effort, or what that 1 person who you respect most in the world would perceive as the absolute best effort – without flaw.

    HOWEVER: Let me mention the business world for just a moment. When you’re working strictly for revenue purposes (working on assignment, working for money, working for a living), you have to determine what the optimum quality is for best results versus effort put in. There is a point at which perfectionism will drive the people you work with absolutely INSANE — because they know it will not make a difference to the final outcome. You must know when you’re crossing that line.

    With that in mind, I like and advocate Leah’s approach. 🙂

  2. Cheri Laser

    This is sort of related to perfectionism because I’m commenting on the news that your next Writer’s Conference in NYC will be in January 2011! Yea!

    Attending your conference in September 2009 resulted in a 180-degree turn of direction for me with respect to my second novel. That conference motivated me to finish the novel and then changed the approach I was taking to publish this second book.

    The conference also spurred me on to launch my blog (Journey from Publishing Obscurity to Somewhere Else) and to sign up for a site on for my first novel. I’ll also be able to do pre-release marketing for my second novel on that same site, and I never would have know about resources such as FiledBy without your conference.

    I also immediately mapped out a social media plan based on the rapidly changing realities of the publishing world/industry (presented in detail at your conference) rather than on the way the industry used to work when I first started chasing this dream more than ten years ago. That plan is still a work-in-process, but at least I have a plan now.

    So I absolutely cannot wait until your next conference. My goal is to be the first one registered … 🙂

    Thanks for bringing this enormous effort back for a second event–and thanks for not diluting your efforts at BEA. Your focus is deeply appreciated.

    All the best,
    Cheri Laser

  3. Leah Raeder

    I’m like that writer who constantly edited his or her work, compulsively tweaking and whittling it down. It can be dangerous, like too much plastic surgery: the cutting and stitching get out of hand and you’re left with a monster.

    I thought my perfectionism was something I needed to conquer in order to be a productive writer, but I’m learning instead to embrace it. It’s part of who I am. It shapes my work. I don’t *want* to get rid of my perfectionism–I just want to be able to produce work steadily without being held back by it.

    Now, in the midst of my first serious attempt at writing a novel, I’ve made a compromise with myself: I’m allowing the inner perfectionist loose. She can hack and refine my prose to her heart’s content. I’m editing as I write. But there are goals to meet, word counts and narrative milestones to reach. If I don’t meet those goals, then the perfectionist editor has to go back into the closet while the writer does her work.

    I’m happy working this way. I feel mostly pleased with the quality of my writing, because I’m constantly checking in on it and improving it, as my inner perfectionist likes. But when I sense myself becoming obsessive about insignificant edits, the perfectionism is repressed and I force myself to write through the neurotic urges until they pass.

  4. Tom Bentley

    Because I’ve done a lot of editing/proofing as well as creative writing, I’ve been strangled at times with not only having to deliver a lightning bolt of searing text, but also having to ensure that the lightning bolt has sharply etched motion lines, balanced side flames and the pointiest of points. Thank goodness I’ve eased up some, otherwise I’d never send out a piece for a publication’s review. I’ve learned, in Seth Godin’s terms, to "ship."

    I do think great care should be taken in a piece of writing, so that it keenly expresses your (or your character’s) point of view, but that when the baby’s due, deliver it.

  5. *.Lee

    So it isn’t just me. I recently ran into this very issue. I’m a freelance copywriter and my current client recently asked me why I hadn’t submitted a piece that was overdue. The main reason was that, as usual, I’d spent so much time fretting over it, re-reading it 77 times, and changing a word here or there, that I’d completely forgotten that it was due the day before. Argh. It’s a new client and I’d hate for her to see me as irresponsible when it comes to deadlines. But too often, I don’t start a piece until the day it’s due and then I agonize over it for the entire day. Why IS that??

  6. Evelyn Pavlova

    First, I would like to note how much the conductor’s view is a reflection of the current reality. Coming from a music world, it has always been about perfection. Year after year, performing various pieces on the violin, I felt more and more pressure to be flawless. It didn’t matter that the teacher said "It’s about the music, about the expression." Yes, BUT! You went on stage and knew that even though you will express yourself and maybe enjoy it, every second the thought tick-tacked in your head that you must not make a mistake because it will cost you. Then you go on, running in a wheel, like a crazy mouse, chasing something that is ultimately illusory.
    Thus, maybe, a person, paralyzed by their own striving for perfection, knows that they can’t afford flaws. I agree, it is most likely a self-sabotage due to an unconscious low self-esteem, with which all of us struggle to a degree. "If I fail – I’m nothing" versus "If I fail – it’s only a one version of my volatile reality" mindset distinguishes a remarkable professional in any area of life.
    Thank you for an encouraging article, Jane!

  7. Leanne Dyck

    Even though I would never call myself a perfectionist, I must admit that I have chringed when I have read some of my writing that is years, months or even days old.
    "How could I have ever submitted or posted that?" I’ve said.
    What I’ve come to understand is that it is a fair representation of who I was as a writer at that time.
    I wasn’t born a talented writer. I still have much to learn. Why not embrass the journey.
    And as for the big "R", I have recently learnt something that takes the sting out — mass submissions. When you submit more than one piece at a time the odds that one will be positively received increases. An added bonus, you may even forget that you submitted a manuscript for publication. Then its acceptance comes as a pleasant surprise. Try it. It works.

  8. Theresa Milstein

    That picture of the sign had me laughing. Perfect!

    I have the opposite problem. My manuscript is revised a million times (at least it seems that way) and then it goes through critiques. Finally, I send it out only to receive rejections and go back to revise a million times more. While perfection doesn’t paralyze me, I can’t seem to attain it either.

  9. Rachel Whitaker

    It has only been the past year or so, as I’ve tried to move out of copywriting and into fiction and magazine writing, that I’ve noticed how immobilizing perfectionism can be.

    Perfectionism comes down to two things for me: thinking and acting. I tend to do way too much thinking about my work and goals, to the point that I obsess about the end result before I even begin the project. When all I can think about is a perfect product, I have a hard time accepting the imperfections that come with starting something new, and the pressure can become so great that I turn to the excuses mentioned above.

    The good news is, the more aware I am of my tendency toward perfectionism, the better I am at setting more realistic goals for myself and trying to change my behavior. I think it is working, gradually.

  10. Carol Buchanan

    A needless perfectionism is the enemy of nearly everything. An airplane must fly and stay in the air if it loses an engine or two, then deliver its passengers safely to the ground, and save lives as well as take us places. Except in safety, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

    When writing, there’s a time to let the story fly, to launch it with the knowledge that it’s the best I can do now. If it doesn’t work, well, no lives are lost. We can set it aside and come back to it later with fresh insight and more living and better skills.

    Writers are human, or so we like to think, and humans aren’t perfect. We can only do our best at the time, and we all need forgiveness. Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves, too.

  11. Michael Wheatley

    I believe the perfect mate to perfectionism is a deadline. If one can temper the constant striving for the best possible creative output by always keeping an eye on the finish line, be it real or self-imposed (submission, performance, etc.), then perfectionism can be an ally. Sometimes my perfectionism causes me to spend two hours on a blog post when I could’ve easily settled for one, or keep my musicians for a few minutes overtime to get the job done. I’ve been called picky by colleagues… but I have to admit – deep down this leads me to think they are far too cavalier about their work/art.

  12. Jessica Tudor

    Oh, goodness, yes. Perfectionism is a huge excuse for most creatives I know and we all admit it. My take on it is a little different than the aforementioned revision-rut.

    Here’s how mine manifests: All my life, I have either had things come naturally to me or been a super quick study. I never had to revise a paper; I wrote it and got an A. I never had to study – the mere act of writing the notes in class implanted them in my brain for later recall.

    When I began writing novels, it should be no surprise that I completed a first draft and moved on to the next novel. I’ve completed at least six this way, and have improved with each, surely, but I’m humble enough to know the novels AREN’T good enough as they are. I’ve never learned how to fix them because I’ve never had to fix things. My goal this year is to conquer my fear of the unknown: revision.

  13. Ann Baldwin

    Another saying I keep @ my desk to remind me to keep submitting my work especially after I get a rejection letter is: "Star Wars was rejected by every major film production company in Hollywood, before one of them finally picked it up."

  14. Ann Baldwin

    Who’s definition of perfect? Who decides? It’s always hard 2 know when 2 let go. I keep a saying @ my desk: "Even the best written screenplays get revised" 2 remind me. The challenge is that there are so many people out there & they all have different opinions. It’s like the old saying “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” As artists, I believe it comes with the territory to want to keep tinkering away to make our work perfect, but often times, when we do that, we end up making it worse than it originally was.

  15. Simon Cornish

    For me, striving for perfection is an unhealthy obsession; I’m creative not technical. Try as I might, there is always something I could change or correct, I just reach a stage where I need to draw a line under it and move on. I know it’s never going to be perfect, but that says a lot about me as a writer, the message is there in the content, in the words, and if it’s a little wonky here or there, it’s because I’m human –a flaw for which I’ll eventually forgive myself.

  16. Patty Blount

    Perfect timing… #writechat on Twitter yesterday delved deeply into a similar discussion.

    To a large extent, the field determines the level of perfection required. Olympic Figure Skating, for example, requires a much higher level of perfection than say, fiction writing.

    I am battling two issues. One is my inner critic, who compels me to review, revise, review again. I must consciously battle her to keep writing. The second is my ego. This is the voice that keeps telling me I suck and should leave writing to the professionals. When the two of them gang up on me, I do not write.

    For writers, it’s important to keep writing and leave the revision and review for after the story is out of your head and committed to paper (or PC). Feeling accomplished as a writer comes from FINISHING a project, not from writing one perfect paragraph.

    I am considering recording a little MP4 piece that says, "You’re a good writer, you’re a good writer" on infinite loop. Maybe that will shut up the other two.

    Or at least, drown them out. 🙂

  17. Kelly Watson

    I think it was Walt Whitman who revised his work long after it was published — right up to his very death. I’m sure many other writers do this too (famous and not-so-famous.) The problem is, it can make a person very unproductive. I try to follow the 80-20 rule … once a project is 80 percent perfect, I leave it alone. Trying to perfect the remaining 20 percent is usually a waste of time.

  18. Daryl Sedore

    It seems the line between self-sabotage and perfectionism can be thin. There needs to be a point where you stop. People need to find this balance in themselves and then move forward. I would like to add that for my first novel, I revised too much. Finally I put it in the drawer and started the second novel, which I went over less and now it’s ready. I see my line clearly. I’m not afraid to get it out there. Just like Jane said, don’t use perfectionism as an excuse; Submit!

  19. Ethel Leawood

    Procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism. Perfection is impossible to reach. Books, articles, and websites have errors. I do believe it’s fear of rejection, failure, or the ultimate fear of making a mistake that stifles progress. In any case, I vote for progress and moving forward. If you have a good editor she/he will help you with the final version. Let’s let go of our fears and this week vow to progress in our projects.

  20. Pamela Hutchins

    I think perfection is always a goal to strive for, but never fully attainable. How will you ever know whether you are the best you can be versus just the best you can be at a particular stage of your learning and development? I think expressing/producing and falling short is part of the learning and journey.

  21. LS Murphy

    As writers, I don’t think there is any such thing as perfection. We will always find a sentence to tweak or a word that is right one day but not the next. At some point, we have to let it go.