The Rewriting Trap

Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.

————————-Eugene Delacroix

When I read this quote I was reminded of a kid who erases a certain spot so many times they eventually end up rubbing a hole in their work. Their once white paper is now grey and dirty looking, flawed beyond repair.

Sometime we writers want or expect our stories to be perfect. We go over our sentences and paragraphs with a fine tooth comb sometimes changing a word here or there. We read it so many times the words become stale and we no longer see it as that gem we once started with. So we revise again.

It’s easy to get caught up in the “rewriting trap”.

Recently, I mentioned to a writer friend that I was working on revisions (again) and she jokingly warned, “Don’t get caught in the forever rewriting trap with our manuscript.”

I can honestly see how a writer could get caught in this trap. Like the kid who keeps erasing his/her paper, we search for the right wording, the just so sentences and paragraphs– the perfect story. Sometimes the scariest thing is calling it good and sending our work on its way.

I’m not perfect. I’m sure nothing I write would ever be classified as perfect, if such a thing even exists. And if it did exist I’m not so sure I’d want to be a part of it. Sounds a bit boring to me.

It is our imperfections that make us human. It keeps us real. The moment we consciously try and try and try to make our work perfect the further we get away from who we are.

So, while I’m planning to take time with these latest revisions, I also have a goal in mind as to how long I will keep reworking it. The story is already written. I have little more to change. A bit of polishing, a few shakes to get out the wrinkles and I will send it off when the time is right.

Now I’m a bit curious and must ask— Do you believe in perfection? Do you go over your work many times searching for perfection until you’ve rubbed a hole in your paper? Are you ever satisfied with the end results?

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  1. Perfection – that which is perfect. There is no earthly person who falls into that category, but … we try to anyway! I was that child who rubbed a hole in her paper trying to make her work flawless, trying to achieve glowing approval from someone. The pursuit of perfection, I think, is the living out of the fear of rejection. We want our work to be perfect so that it – and we – won’t face being rejected.
    I can still get stuck in place by perfectionism, trying to get things ‘just so.’ It too often keeps me from getting started. When I do complete something I always wonder what I can do to improve it. Satisfaction is not easy to find but perhaps it comes with acceptance of oneself, do you suppose?

    • I think you’re right, Lynn, when you say that our pursuit of perfection comes from our fear of rejection. I also find it interesting that we collectively seem to think that we, or our work, won’t be accepted by others if it is not perfect. What self-induced pressure we put on ourselves! I’m most certain that the more we accept ourselves, the more we accept our imperfections for what they are. Sometimes we just take life a bit too serious. Don’t you think?

  2. I agree with Lynn…we are all looking for acceptance/approval, but that can end up paralyzing one’s creative process if it’s allowed to become the only reason one writes.

    I’m forever hitting “Publish” on my blog posts, and then thinking of ways that I could have said things better, but I never edit once something’s “published” unless I’ve made a typo or spelled something incorrectly. I think that’s a bit like cheating…


    • It’s funny that you wrote about this yesterday…every morning, I post a quote on the bookstore’s Facebook page. Here’s the quote I used yesterday: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” James Michener


      • It is difficult not to look back, Wendy. But as you say once we hit publish it is best to leave our posts they way they are.

        It’s funny how themes seem to pop up at the same time. That’s a great quote!

  3. Great post as always, Laura.

    I suffer from “Not good enough” syndrome in many areas of my life such as being a mother, a wife, an employee, keeping the house tidy etc. I guess that’s a form of perfectionism except that I tend to give up easily or not try for the fear that it will never be good enough.

    I’m better than I used to be and don’t let the inner critic win as often. I strive to constantly improve but achieving perfection is unattainable.

    For the writing, if I know I’ve written with passion, made an honest effort and worked hard at revising the piece til it shines, it’s “Good enough.”

    • Thanks Cathy! As always, I enjoy your!

      When people use the term, “not good enough” I always wonder whose standards they mean.

      It sounds as though you’re working on your inner critic, so Ill give you a break..:) Seriously, as I said to Lynn, we often take ourselves, our lives way too seriously. What’s the worse thing that could happen, for instance, if your house is untidy?

      I’m glad that you’re conquering this in your writing life because eventually all writers have to decide their work is good enough and send it off.

  4. Jan Coates

     /  August 11, 2010

    Just had my final pre-printing chat with Peter Carver, who’s editing “A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk” – I’m nervous whenever I start reading the manuscript, but it’s time to let it go, “as is”, and keep my fingers crossed!

    • Yay Jan! It is VERY hard to let it go that final time knowing that there is no turning back.. Can hardly wait for the release of your book!

  5. Great post.
    Perfection, that’s a frustrating thing, isn’t it?
    I think nothing can be perfect. I’m halfway through a Gena Showalter novel and have found several typos (like, five or so….for real, no joke).

    We’re only human. Perfection’s not an option for us.

    • “We’re only human. Perfection’s not an option for us.”—-I quite like the sounds of that, Lynn. It is SO true. And something we need to accept fully, not just intellectually. I’m much easier on myself than I was years ago. It takes practice as well as accepting that “perfect” can really never exist.

  6. I admit I’m a perfectionist. I’ve never been completely satisfied with any portrait I did, and I probably will never be satisfied with anything that I write. That doesn’t stop me from writing though. Or submitting. :-)

    • Linda, I’ve seen some of your work and it is simply wonderful! I can’t imagine how you couldn’t be completely satisfied with it. You are much too hard on yourself. I’m glad you do not let this stop you from expressing yourself creatively. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you…Hopefully you’ll have some really great news to share.. :) I am waiting for the day when I wil one day pick up a copy of your book!

  7. oh yes, do I try!
    funny, but what happens with me is that I love it immediately, but don’t the next day. I’m learning all about my own criticism to self – what to disregard and what to take seriously. difficult.

    • It is difficult to distinguish when we are simply being self critical and dismissing our work because of it. I started a story during the winter that I loved but soon became bored with. After letting it set for awhile I picked it up and loved it again. I had gained a new perspective. I’m glad I had that time away from it. You’re right. It is not always easy!

  8. Oh, how strange the word perfection is. To me, perfection is capturing soul, essence, spirit, in such a way that others recognize it and for a moment experience profundity.

    If this is indeed perfection, then, yes, I strive for it in my own work. Just like any artist, I trust my intuition to tell me when a piece is done. If I *feel* something isn’t quite right yet, I won’t rest easy until I figure out what it is. It’s not so much about rewriting sentences as it is about capturing gestures, creating character, creating good dialogue …

    I love that you always make me think about these things :).

    • I’m sure we all have our own definition of perfection. While I’m not sure what perfection would be in my own work, I probably would recognize it much quicker in someone else’s. While I strive for a certain flow in my writing, I’m usually satisifed once that it achieved,

  9. I had an uncle who was a professional artist. I once confided in him that I wasn’t very happy with my painting and he told me no true artist is ever totally satisfied with his work, because perfectly expressing the abstract that constitutes art is impossible. I wonder if that transfers over to the writer’s world, too.

    • I have a feeling that you may have hit the nail on the head, Carol. Your uncle sounds very wise. Does this transfer into a writer’s world?—More than likely!

  10. I’m rarely satisified with the end results initially because I’ve worked on a piece so intensely that by the time I’m “done” it, I have no idea if it’s *good* or the *worst thing ever written by anyone, anywhere.* ;-) A lovely thing though–I occasionally go back and read things I’ve written or published and I’m always surprised. It’s like reading a story or essay by someone else and I often am thrilled by how interested I am or how much I end up liking them. Then I grudgingly think, Hey, look at that. It’s not terrible. :D

    I think it’s hard because with the Arts, not matter how you work or what you accomplish, you’re always striving toward that next level of expression/craft/rapture. :D I have the world or idea that I want to put forth in my head, but when it’s on the page I worry it falls short of my vision.

    That said, I have an editing cut-off. Deadline or when I realize my editing is endless tinkering with things like contractions. Is that sentence better with it’s or it is . . . :)

    Great post, Laura. Happy editing!

    • “Striving toward the next level of expression.” I love that phrase! Perhaps writers are not looking for perfection so much as the next level of expression.

      I know that feeling, when you work on something for so long that you’re not even sure if it’s good anymore. I’ve been drifting between hating what I’m doing and loving it. Hopefully, when I done there will be nothing but love!

      PS: I love your emoticons. It says Ev was here! :)

  11. p.s. Yikes re: all the emoticons I used in my last comment. And I haven’t even had coffee yet!

    • It is the same for me, Ev – as though reading work by someone else, when time has passed.
      And your emoticons are your stamp, as Laura says :)


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