Friday, January 4, 2013

Done Is Better Than Perfect

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

I recently read this Facebook post, which had dozens of Likes: A little advice, writers. Don't think you have to put a whole lot of words on paper every day. What I find is a few words today will encourage more tomorrow. The point is for those few to be brilliant.

I respectfully disagree… that is, if you want to make a living as novelist, or least sell moderately well. If you're writing just for your own pleasure, you can do whatever you want. But striving for a few brilliant words every day will not produce a finished novel, let alone a body of work.

I realize many writers have full-time jobs and kids at home to take care of. I did too, for most of my writing career. But I found that setting aside blocks of time in which I could write whole scenes for chapters worked better for me than trying to write a little something every day.

And brilliance? Why even think about it? Most readers aren't looking for brilliance; they just want a good story with interesting characters. So laboring over every word and every sentence is too paralyzing. If you want to produce something for people to read, then you have to finish the story.

Done is always better than perfect.

I'm not implying that I don't care about quality or craftsmanship. I definitely do. In the second, third, and fourth drafts, I polish my prose as much as I can. But I don’t worry about producing beautiful turns of phrase or poetic descriptions. As Elmore Leonard says, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

In my prose, I strive for clarity, readability, and rhythm. In my word count, I strive for consistent daily production while I write the first draft. Getting the whole story down in a short period of time is my goal—because it works. The longer it takes to write the first draft, the more I struggle with keeping the whole story in my head and making the timing work out.

I've known people who spent five or ten years writing the same novel and never finishing it. That must be purposeful. They must not want to finish because finishing means letting someone read it. And that’s scary. I understand.

But I want people to read my stories, and I don't care if no one ever calls my writing brilliant.

The woman who wrote the post may have thought she was being encouraging to authors. But telling writers to strive for a few brilliant words every day is bad advice on both levels… unless she was trying to thin out the market competition.

What do you think of that advice? What works to keep you motivated?


  1. Absolutely right on advice, LJ! Write every day and get your ideas down while you're inspired. Leave the fine-tuning for later. It's better to leave a bit of time before revising, anyway.

  2. Great advice, LJ! Seeking brilliance or perfection can be paralyzing. I mean really, who is??? I'm not saying I don't like an occasional beautiful turn of phrase, but if they happen too often, they slow the story down. And that's a killer, so to speak.

    What seems to work for me is to set a target publication date and work backwards to figure out when I need to have the first draft done, then calculate a writing schedule so I know how many words I need to write a day to achieve my goal.

  3. I completely agree. I've always written with the idea that the first draft is to get the story down. The second draft is to make it good. It's when I've strayed from this idea that I've run into trouble. After all, you can't fix what isn't written.

  4. Great advice, even for those of us who don't write fiction. Thanks, L.J.!

  5. I'm another "get the first draft down as quickly as possible" person. What usually works for me is to set a goal: finish the SFD (sloppy first draft) by X date. Polishing is what the second/third/fourth revision is for. However, I don't do continuous revisions, either. Generally by the third revision, I'm just tweaking things to tweak them: change for change sake. That's the point at which I stop.

    I'd love it if people thought my words are brilliant. I'd love it even more if they just get read and bring a few hours pleasure to the reader's life, regardless of brilliance.

  6. There's the old saying: "It sounds like there's a writer in the room."

    Writing is at its best when the audience becomes so immersed in our worlds, they forget they're actually reading. Flamboyant or showy prose can bump the reader out of a story just as easily as poorly constructed sentences. Having said that, I've read some brilliantly written turns of phrase that have left me in awe. But it's a very delicate balance and one not easily achieved. I strive for out-of-the-ordinary prose but also try to stay out of my own way while doing it.

    As far as word count: I never pay attention to how many I put out per day. The number depends on my inspiration level (or confusion). I do, however, try to write significant amounts each time. Just a few sentences a day would be like creating a painting one dab per day.

  7. Spot on, LJ! I used to drive myself crazy, beat myself up even, if I missed a day of writing. But I've learned to respect who I am as a writer. I'm a mother, teacher, wife and sometimes housekeeper as well, and I don't have a measely fifteen minutes some days to write. I also like to write when I can immerse myself in my story. Fifteen minutes doesn't cut it.

    Since I've learned to settle into my life and not fight it so much, I find I still wrangle with myself a bit, but I'm learing to let go, and enjoy the ride!

    I've been very productive this week in the writing department because I've had the week off from teaching. I'll settle for writing when I can now, mopping up my mess in the edits, and save the pearly bits of prose for later days.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post, LJ! I admire your ability to juggle it all :)

  8. I would definitely remove the word "brilliant" from that writer's advice, but for some people, getting a few words on the page means they have more words than yesterday. I'm not the "barf it all out and fix it later" writer. I'm not as anal as Dean Koontz, who perfects each page before he moves on to the next, but I definitely self-edit as I go. After a few years of beating myself up because Life kept interrupting my writing plans, I finally figured out a system that works for me. I have a little datebook that I write out my writing schedule. If I have a busy day working at the ranch or going to trustee meetings, etc, I plan that in, so that I don't feel guilty when I skimp that day. My busy days are sometimes when I go back through my WIP and make certain the continuity is there. I might get an extra new page written, but I don't try for "brilliant." I try for "more."

  9. I do the same as Peg and work backwards from an estimated publication date. If I have uninspired days, I catch up on the better days. I also devote hours to my writing rather than worry about word count.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Thanks for commenting, everyone. We all have to get there in our own way. I shoot for a daily word count of 2500 when I'm writing the first draft because that works for me. And those drafts may not be award material, but they're not "barf" either. Lots of writers are cranking out 2, 3, or 4 books a year and making their readers very happy.

  12. Absolutely! I'm not striving for brilliance in my novels, I'm striving for entertainment. Great post, but the 2500 word count is far more impressive. I feel like I had a great day when I get 1000.

  13. This is exactly the kind of advice those of us who aren't yet published need to hear, and to follow.

    Thanks for this, L.J.

  14. Great post, L J. Getting the skeleton organized is the most important step in finishing a book! Once you know that all the important bones are there, it's easy to add skin and beauty. Thanks for the great comments--there is so much junk advice out there for aspiring writers.

  15. L.J, I agree with the comments and responses. Writers have different techniques, of course. Trollope wrote like a clock - literally. Dickens, if I recall correctly, worked best under deadline. Twain had lulls. Vonnegut perfected each page, if not each sentence. Asimov couldn't help himself - he had to revise once. You nailed the problem: Writers don't determine brilliance, readers do. And craft must precede all else, which means focusing, as you note, on character, story, etc. It takes a long time to become an apprentice of the craft; it seems to take longer for many to realize that that's the sine qua non - craft. Thanks! (A couple days late because of browser issues.)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.