Todd Richardson, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant
I have always expected too much of my writing. In high school, I wrote poetry that I was certain conjured magic on the page, only to find sheepish typos and garish rhyme schemes when I later reread it. I was surprised, embarrassed. After uncovering my own fallibility, I lost the confidence to show my writing to anyone save my closest confidants. The discovery that one draft of writing could come out feeling so perfect only to later realize that the same piece needed more work indicated some clear flaw in myself. How could one written thing sound so good today and then so horrid tomorrow? Clearly the issue was me. I needed some work, some practice, to push harder. Instead of fun, writing became painful, an exercise reaching for the unattainable. The pressure I placed on myself forced me to improve and justified my expectations, but it also led to bad habits: procrastination, negative self-talk, loss of perspective.
This pattern continued in college. I required spectacular feats of my five paragraph essays. Introductions had to begin with perfect first lines, hooks that lured my professor sentence by sentence towards my thesis. Conclusions had to culminate by offering some sort of profound philosophical truth that I was certain riveted my composition instructor’s perceptions of time and space as they read through their biweekly stacks of essays. My word choices had to amount to pithy remarks and razor-sharp observations. I earned A’s, a few smiley faces, check marks. These academic at-a-boys further entrenched my devotion to the cult of perfection, and when I didn’t receive the happy face or check mark it only reinforced my insufficiency. I chased a high of perfection but mostly experienced self-doubt and disappointment. Still, I was convinced that this quest for success was the process of writing. Perfection served as my pie-in-the sky.
Then I went to grad school. Whereas before I had the time to obsess over my writing, the demands of an advanced degree knocked me on my heels. I floundered through stacks of academic articles and whole books due in a week. Professors assigned essays double the length I was used to with only half as much time to complete them. Perfection slipped from my grasp. I turned in first drafts that I started the night before. I spent more time understanding my readings than on their corresponding assignments. I abandoned my perfect first lines for functional sentences, let my conclusions fall flat, and didn’t turn in a single essay that used the word “pithy.” I received feedback of triple red question marks next to phrases like “So what?” and “I’m lost.” When I lamented to one of my professors that I felt my writing had sunk to sub-par levels since starting the program, she cocked an eyebrow.
“How so?” she asked.
“I don’t spend the time I used,” I told her. “I just finish it and turn it in.”
“Done is better than perfect.” She handed back my paper, which was covered in red pen and included the phrase “Interesting Insight.” I got a B+.
I wish I could tell you that I followed her advice from then on. It took me several more years and another master’s degree and a baby until her advice stuck in my skull, and only then I learned it because I didn’t have another choice. Diapers and midnight feedings superseded my desire for perfection. I swapped simple, short sentences in exchange for fifteen more minutes of REM. And finally, one the day, I received praise for it. Mentors wrote me about how clean my work was, celebrated the fact that I stopped using the word “pithy.” All of my work came back with criticism. I read it while bouncing my daughter on my lap, did the best I could to internalize the advice, and moved on. Letting go of perfection provided me a new opportunity I did not anticipate: the freedom to write for myself.
Many writers learn this lesson well before I did, but many do not. I see some of them in the Writing Center and the library, pining over sentence structure and flow and tone. Some of them are young freshman. Some of them are veteran PhD students well on their way into their doctorate. Having spent a good portion of my younger life stuck in the cult of perfection, I understand its draw, and sometimes I still get sucked in. But, if you can, remember that perfection is bupkis. Reading drafts from your younger self should give you the ick, just a smidge, not because you are a bad writer, but because you are a better writer today than you were yesterday. In writing, there is always room to grow, and that growth requires giving ourselves the grace that the pursuit of perfection denies.
Today, entering the third year of the corona-go-round, we need to remember grace now more than ever. Writing is hard, school is hard, and the pandemic makes it harder. We face pressures at work and school to meet expectations set when the world was normal. Yet, this is not normal, not yet. Write from a place of grace, not perfection. Perfection has its place, but keep in mind this piece of advice as you plug away at your assignments—done is better than perfect.