Perfectionist tendencies can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes the drive for perfection is a motivating force, but I have more often found that it is a paralyzing one. No piece of writing, whether it’s a legal brief, blog post, or creative work, is ever perfect, a goal that has objective components, like grammar and spelling,* and subjective parts, including writing style. Even experienced storytellers, such as those at Pixar, are rarely 100% pleased with the product of their hard work, saying, “our films don’t get finished… They just get released.” Generally, the longer the piece is and the less time available to work on it, the farther away from perfect it’s going to be.
In my professional life, in which I write memos and briefs, externally imposed deadlines force me to say, eventually, “This piece is done; it’s as close to perfect as it can get.” With limited time set by courts and procedural rules, I strive for accuracy in my retelling of client’s stories and for legitimacy of my arguments under the law. My next priority is proof-reading, and my last is writing style. An inaccurate legal brief or memorandum could result in a sanction from the court. Typos matter, too. A misspelled or misplaced word can, for example, render an order of protection unenforceable. See Davit v. Stogsdill, 371 Fed. Appx. 683 (2010). It’s my job to meet, at a minimum, an acceptable level of accuracy, grammar, and style all before the deadline. Missing a deadline could result in a plaintiff getting an otherwise meritorious case thrown out or a defendant losing the availability of a solid defense.
In the creative world, particularly with the increasing popularity and legitimacy of self-publishing avenues, there are no externally imposed deadlines. Firmly in the driver’s seat of the journey from manuscript to published work, authors can take as much time as they want to get their work as close to perfect as possible. So how do self-published authors know when their work is ready for release? Friends and family might think the work is “perfect,” but they are hardly objective readers. Even someone hired to critique and edit a work may not be objective or truthful (their business model depends on word-of-mouth, and really, would you recommend a reviewer who ripped apart your beloved manuscript?). While the stakes are not as high as they are when a typo changes the meaning of a protection order, a poorly written or edited book may tarnish an author’s reputation. I’ve read several wonderful indie books, suggesting there are people out there who know when it’s time to release their work. What’s their secret?
My college dean, facing a throng of anxiety-prone freshman accustomed to being “perfect,” said that “the paper you turn in is always better than the paper you don’t.” When perfectionism becomes paralyzing, a student is better off meeting the deadline and getting a C than failing altogether. That’s true in academia and in the legal world, where it’s worse to risk sanction or loss of legal claims for missing a deadline (if attempts to extend are denied) than it is to have a couple of typos. However, my dean’s advice is not necessarily true for creative endeavors: a novel that is published prematurely, one with too many typos, logical errors, or a clunky style, might not be better than the manuscript collecting dust. That’s a paralyzing thought.
Photo Credit: AMB, Misfortune of Knowing
*To the extent the rules of English are truly rules (see The English Language Will Betray You (If You Let It)).