“Still sucks. But it’s better than it was.”
My dad is visiting from Florida this month, and like many handy fathers, generously spends his time fixing things around the house.
One of his projects was to fix the door leading into the garage. The seal was falling off and the door wasn’t shutting properly, which was a big PITA.
So Dad got to work. After an hour or so of banging, clanking, and scraping, I heard the door shut smoothly, followed by a long sigh and this nugget-of-wisdom:
“Still sucks. But it’s better than it was.”
I burst out laughing. Like many fathers, my dad is notorious for zingers. He’s also known for his exceptional talents as a builder and DIY-er. He’s built houses that’ve withstood hurricanes.
So this zinger struck me as particularly relevant to writers and artists.
To me, the mantra of “Still sucks. But it’s better” is a snappy equivalent to the popular credo: “Done is better than perfect.”
Plus, it acknowledges the reality that for many artists, we’re never satisfied with our work. But at least we can make it better.
We’re flooded with two polarizing messages around perfectionism:
Perfectionism is a badge of honor and the mark of someone who cares about their craft. You’re clearly careless and sloppy if you put anything less than perfect into the world. In interviews, “I’m a perfectionist,” is spoken as a #humblebrag in response to “What’s your greatest weakness?”
Perfectionism is the enemy and you must defeat it at all costs. Done is better than perfect! Write shitty first drafts! Perfection is an illusion! Perfectionism KILLS your art!
This kind of black-and-white thinking spins me into an existential crisis. It makes me curl into the fetal position and sob.
If I let go of perfectionism, I’m lowering my standards. If I try to be perfect, I’m paralyzed! Why bother writing at all?!
Then, I take a breath and remember my favorite quote from physicist Neils Bohr: “The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
Between the two extremes of impossible perfection and churning out crap 💩 is this:
We don’t have to be paralyzed by perfection and we don’t have to sacrifice quality in our writing.
We can embrace the “and.” It’s possible to make consistent progress, let go of impossible ideals, and maintain high standards for our writing.
But you know me. I’m not going to leave you hangin’ with pithy inspiration from famous physicists and vague advice to embrace the and.
I’m about using practical strategies so “profound truths” sink in and help us grow our writing lives.
If perfectionism is keeping you paralyzed but you have zero interest in lowering your standards by churning out crap, here’s a simple framework to help:
The SHIP Method: Free Yourself from Perfectionism Without Lowering Your Standards 🚢
(BONUS DOWNLOAD: This method can help you write work you’re proud to publish. Hop on my LitHabits VIP list and download the SHIP IT! Checklist below to lock it into your writing process. VIPS get weekly articles to grow their practice, early access to author interviews, writing workshop discounts, and more. Snag the checklist below.) 👇
The first step in freeing yourself from perfectionism while still writing work you’re proud of is having a clearly defined scope for the project.
Here’s what I mean by scope:
Where are you publishing?
What’s the goal of the piece and how close is it to your heart?
What’s the topic?
What’s the length?
A clear definition of the scope of your project can help determine how much time, attention, and careful editing is required.
One of a writer’s greatest assets is her Writerly Web––her network of writing colleagues and readers who are willing to swap work and offer helpful feedback.
Some of the greatest writers had well-established writers groups (Cheryl Strayed, C.S. Lewis, Hemingway…). When you’ve completed a piece of writing, there may still be issues you won’t see no matter how many times you revise. You’re too damn close to the work!
This is where readers, editors, and writers groups are key.
Poet and author Melissa Poulin says this about the importance of community and writers groups:
[A writers group] helps me see pieces of [my writing] that I wouldn't be able to see on my own. I also have a really hard time seeing my writing. Hearing my writing at all.
I don't know what it is until it's reflected back to me, so that's a gift the group offers: ‘You're doing this thing in your writing. Are you aware of that?’ ‘No, I'm not aware of that.’ ‘Okay, well, then here are some opportunities to develop that and here are some places you could go with it.’
Action step: Find writers or savvy readers you trust, and offer to swap work and feedback. The right readers may help you turn a piece from meh to magnificent.
Your inner voice is your highest intelligence. It lives deep in our subconscious, and according to science, often knows the right answer before we do.
Once you’ve determined the scope of your piece, requested feedback from your Writerly Web, and made a good faith effort in the revision process, it’s time to get quiet and let intuition lead.
Step away from your computer (or journal or typewriter). Get outside in nature––a simple walk around the block or park will do. Turn your phone off or leave it at home so you’re not distracted.
Find a place to sit comfortably or keep walking if movement helps you tap into your deepest self. Take in your surroundings. Breathe deep. Bonus points: Take 10 minutes to do a guided meditation or count your breaths.
Then, ask mindful questions about your project. (Get the SHIP IT! Checklist in the form above or below to get specific, soul-diving questions to help guide your intuition).
Pay attention to your body rather than any verbal commentary in your head. Notice butterflies in your belly. Goosebumps. Notice what your shoulders are doing. These are all physical clues to pay attention to.
You’ll naturally have pings of dissatisfaction. “This piece still sucks!” That’s okay. Let those voices have their say. Just keep inquiring.
That “gut feeling” is your intuition.
If your gut tells you the piece needs more work, give yourself a firm deadline. Then, start the SHIP Method from the beginning.
Here’s a great article on the power of intuition and how to sharpen it if you’re interested in going deeper.
PARDON, PUBLISH, & PARTY! 🎉
The whole reason writing sages rail against perfectionism is because it’s an unattainable goal. Striving for perfection ultimately leads to suffering. As writers, we suffer enough, #amIright?
The greatest lesson I ever learned was how to forgive myself. I forgive myself every damn day.
If I can’t forgive myself, I can’t begin again. If I can’t begin again, I’ll never write another word.
Ann Patchett says the key to making art and overall happiness is forgiving ourselves.
Be happy. Make art. And let it go.
Embrace the mantra: It still sucks, but it’s better than it was.
Pardon yourself for imperfection, and freakin’ publish your work.
Once you’ve published, make a mindful choice to celebrate your achievement. Honoring your wins builds momentum and keeps you writing consistently.
There’s one silly ritual I do when I feel that tug of dissatisfaction, but the time has come to let it go and just publish.
I turn on the loudest, most energetic playlist I can find (think Beast Mode on Spotify), and I run around the house waving my arms, yelling: SHIP IT! F**KING SHIP IT!
The dogs go wild. My neighbors think I’m possessed.
It’s the most ridiculous habit, I know, but it’s goofy and fun and releases the anxious energy that builds up in us “serious writers.” It gets me over the finish line.
And that’s my simple strategy for finding the sweet spot between perfection paralysis and churning out crappy writing.
To lock it in to your own writing process, become a LitHabits VIP and get the SHIP IT! Checklist here. 👇
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