The Pitfalls of Perfectionism When Writing a First Draft

I recently passed 67k on the work in progress. It’s officially a novel. My FIRST novel. An exciting feat for someone who wasn’t even sure that she could write something of novella length. I remember being so proud of myself for reaching 17k. Well, I’ve almost quadrupled that, so what’s up now, Past Self?

I’ve learned a thing or two about dedication and persistence. About sticking to goals. About accountability. About what works for me when it comes to writing. (It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all type of deal.) I’ve also had to unlearn a thing or two. What I’ve unlearned was necessary for me to reach my word-count goals on my first draft.

I’ve had to let go of my perfectionist ideals.

I’ve had to let go of the idea that my first draft should be a sparkling, blemish-free, ready-for-publication magnum opus. The greatest work of my life!

That idea was slowing me down. A LOT.

I was treating my first draft like the only draft I was allowed to have. I was stopping every couple minutes to obsess over a word or do some “quick” research.

Minimizing the word processor and opening an Internet browser is a very dangerous thing.

This I’ve learned. Again and again. And again. And I’ll probably learn this yet again in the future after looking up a definition and somehow ending up on YouTube watching Corey Feldman music videos.

Basically, I was researching trivial things when I should’ve been advancing my story. I’ve learned that perfectionism can be procrastination in disguise.

It is also wasteful when it comes to a first draft. Now that I’m nearing the end, I’ve realized that whole sections might have to be cut because they slow the story down or are no longer relevant to what the story has become. I’ve dumped hours into perfecting prose that will most likely get cut.

Once I started to let go of my ideas of first-draft perfection, I noticed that my word count began to increase. Fretting over every little sentence was stunting my progress and only allowed for a couple hundred words a day. Now I can write a thousand in one day and am aiming to write even more.

I’ve learned that the first draft is a rough sketch.

With a rough sketch, you apply big, broad strokes to map out a form. You move the pencil freely, not worrying about what’s right or wrong.  You then go in and erase the unnecessary lines and add the detail that makes it realistic.

You don’t worry about those details when you’re mapping out the form. Those always come later. It actually took me awhile to learn to start with a rough sketch when drawing. The realistic details were always my strong point, but starting with those details left me with ill-proportioned faces with features that were never quite symmetrical. It seems I was destined to repeat the same mistakes with fiction. But it’s OK–I’m still learning and adjusting. And humans are supposed to be able to adapt, right?

I keep thinking that my first novel is supposed to act as a perfect reflection of myself and my creative identity. I’ve let this falsehood go too. All this project can really represent is a season of my life and a slice of my creative focus. And, in the end, you have to ignore all those self-conscious thoughts in order to tell a good, uninhibited story.

Because that’s what this is all about at the end of the day: telling a story. It becomes really simple. Do away with the bad habits that hinder you when telling your story.

I figure that, once the story is told, that nitpicky and self-conscious part of myself can return when it comes time to edit.