Perfect Imperfection (or, writers hold fire)

Can your writing be too perfect?

When I was 15, my stepfather told me that if I wasn’t willing to spend months looking for just the right word, I would never create literary writing; I’d be a hack.

I’ve also been told diligent revision is of more value than an inspired first draft (which no doubt is true). All of us understand that you do not submit your work without proofing it and making sure it is technically perfect. No typos. 99% is not good enough in your cover letter.

Here’s a different thought: can your work be too perfect?

A friend of mine, asked to comment on the first chapter of one of my novels, said that it was “curiously flat, almost as if you’ve edited it too much.”

Writers are handling fire. We reach into the furnace of the human spirit and withdraw the live coals, arranging them for everyone to see. Readers know when someone has revealed his heart in his prose or his poetry. Editors, inundated with a thousand submissions that look the same, draw a surprised breath when they find one with heat, one with laughter, one with sharp edges.

There are times when I think that we get too wrapped up in creating a work so technically perfect that we self-edit the spirit right out of it, as if we’re scared of our own texts.

A friend of mine says that when she draws, there are always a couple of lines that end up in slightly the wrong place but which impart true character to the piece.

In the same way, a manuscript composed of flawless sentences may read well, but the reader will sense that restraint, and the carefully constructed text won’t leave as much of an impression. Sometimes we must knowingly break the rules in order to create something memorable.

Diamonds glint because of their sharp-edged facets. If you could file them all down so your diamond was a sphere, it wouldn’t shimmer at all.

If there are no mistakes and no errors and no chances taken, a work of art feels like we filed the serial numbers off and stuck it into mittens and sensible shoes just before sending it out the door. Sometimes I think we do just need to fly by the seats of our pants and be risky, and even laugh at our work.


  1. John Desjarlais

    I think it was Walt Whitman – famous for revising – who said “No work is ever finished; it is simply abandoned.” There does come a point of diminishing returns. I stop revising when the revisions make the piece worse – or the deadline arrives.

  2. Jenni

    Thank you! That is exactly what I’m dealing with in my current manuscript.

    I think your step-father would have had a conniption over nanowrimo. 🙂

  3. philangelus

    No, he’d understand that Nanowrimo was your first draft, only poured out at lightning speed. He actually did write a novel exactly that way (it’s on my computer!) but then he revised it endlessly afterward.

    John, that’s funny about the deadline. “I need to send it today, so it must be perfect.” 🙂

  4. Elizabeth

    Since I started blogging, I have found the words just fly off the keyboard – I hardly edit, and I feel great about what I have posted. My over-edited novel has not been touched in months. It’s just not fun anymore.

  5. CricketB

    One of Heinlein’s rules of writing (see
    is to never revise, unless the editor requires it. It’s in reaction to the over-editing problem.

  6. CricketB

    I think it was the Navaho who always left an error in their weaving. The only perfect thing is God.