On February 3, 2010, Horsey at Heart wrote, ….I sometimes get so caught up with the idea of publishing someday, or showing my work to others, that I think it needs to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, even if it’s only a rough draft. It’s annoying, but I can’t seem to stop feeling that way.

This isn’t a question, but I think perfection is a worthy topic.  Thank you, Horsey at Heart.

Seems to me there are people at each of two ends of a spectrum with everybody else somewhere in the middle.  Some believe that whatever they write is wonderful, no revision needed.  This may be a happy state to live in – unless it covers oceans of unexplored self-doubt – but self-satisfaction rarely produces fine work.

Then there are the tormented writers who are never pleased with their writing.  Their critical selves are always powered up, hovering at the elbows of their creative selves, questioning every word choice, reviling every plot decision.  These poor people have a terrible time producing any quantity of work and then showing it to anyone, much less an editor.

The rest of us are too hard on ourselves sometimes, but we can also applaud when we pull off something difficult.  The truth, which I talk about in Writing Magic and have probably mentioned on the blog as well, is that there is no such thing as a perfect book.  It is as impossible to write a perfect book as it is to be a perfect person.

This is a good analogy, because both writing and living are works in progress.  We don’t throw up our hands and stop trying to be decent people just because we know we can’t be perfect ones.  Living and writing require self-criticism, but in both bashing ourselves over the head for our mistakes is a bad strategy, and so is endlessly excusing ourselves.

I’m feeling a little preachy, but I’m going to keep going.  Suppose I tend to be a tad judgmental, and sometimes I may hurt the feelings of people I love.  What I might do (if it was really me we were talking about here) is to recognize the situations that inspire me to rush to judgment and to breathe deeply, maybe be silent for a while and consider if I could try a different response and what that new response might be.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve had trouble in a few recent books with making my main character likeable, and I’m having exactly that difficulty in the one I’m working on now.  So I’m keeping the issue in mind.  Is Elodie annoying the reader right now? I’m asking myself.

Keeping an issue in mind is different from beating myself up.  I’m not thinking, Darn!  I spoiled her.  I’m only asking and then I’m figuring out how to have her not be irritating.

Some of you have been reading the blog for a while or have read books about writing.  You know yourselves as writers, the terrific things you do automatically and the other things that are a struggle.  Keep the struggle issues in mind as you write, as I do, sort of as a checklist.  You can write them down if that helps you remember.  You can think about them as you write.  But if that chokes off your flow, you can bring them in when you revise.

I was in New York City yesterday, my favorite place to walk.  So I was loping along, thinking of the blog and the topic of perfection, and my mind jumped to the scene I’m writing now, which introduces two hermits.  There have to be hermits in the story, or at this point I think there have to be, and I hadn’t introduced any, so I decided I had to go back and write a hermit scene, but I have pretty good forward momentum going, and I resented backtracking and wanted to rush through the scene.  As I walked I realized I hadn’t shown the reader what the hermits look like, and the scene will be hard to visualize without being able to see them, so I started to think about hermit appearance, which was fun.  I am telling you all this because it’s an example of making your inner critic your collaborator instead of the enemy.

On the other hand, the day before yesterday I looked at some of my favorite of my poems, and I didn’t like a single one.  I wasn’t thinking, How can I make this better?  I was thinking, Yuck!  So I decided it wasn’t a good time to reread my poems.  When I’m feeling hopeless while writing a book, when I’m thinking that it stinks or that I don’t know what I’m doing, I tell myself to shut up and wait till I’m finished.  When a story is in the middle of itself it can go any way in the world.  Judging it then is only detrimental.  And judging in a global way while you’re revising is also detrimental.  But it is useful to think, More dialogue here, or, I can trim this, or Show where everybody is here.

And judging in a global way when you’re all finished is detrimental too.  That’s the time to celebrate.

Here is the mantra:  Specific criticism, good; global criticism, bad.

There are two areas, however, where you want to approach perfection before you show your writing around:  grammar and spelling.  English is tricky, and you may not get absolutely everything right, but try.  Make friends with a usage book.  I use two, Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, although Fowler’s is more British.  And when you look up a word in the dictionary, be sure to read the usage note if there is one.  A great and fun book on grammar and usage is Woe Is I or for kids, Woe Is I, Jr. by Patricia T. O’Conner.

I promised Pambelina to name some writing books I like.  Most of them deal to some degree with the curse of perfectionism.  I think they’re all okay for a middle school audience.  If you’re younger, check with a parent or librarian.  Every one of these books was instrumental in my development as a writer.  My fave is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser.  The others that I love are:  Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott; Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, both by Natalie Goldberg; Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (old-fashioned in expression but modern in ideas).  For writing poetry, if you’re interested, there are The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms edited by Ron Padgett and The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.  This last one is for high school level and above.  If you are writing for children, Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published is excellent.  When I was starting out, I practically wore out the print with my eyes.

No prompt today, except to write – in a positive way – your personal checklist of aspects of storytelling you would like to keep in mind, which you can add to and subtract from as your writing changes.  Have fun!

  1. I just want to say that I love your blogs. They really help me look at my writing differently, from more perspectives, and to help me learn to be more confident with what I write. :]

  2. Great blog! I'm kind of in the middle of your two examples… sometimes I think I walk on water (ah, my Aries ego) and sometimes I think I'll never get it right and am doomed in my writing aspirations. Right now I'm reading through my first draft doing a rough edit and writing notes on what I want to fix when I'm really getting down to editing. Most of my notes are "SDT" which stands for Show Don't Tell. I guess I get lazy when I'm writing my first draft and struggle with that! I need to look hard at my text and figure out a way to show different things rather than telling. Who knew revision was so hard? (Now I see why I never revised any of my college essays! Haha. Don't worry, I still got good grades)

  3. I fall somewhere between hating my writing to thinking it's pretty good on good days. Well, those scenes that I 'feel' are good. And I wish I could start editing, but I don't want to since I haven't finished. DX Anyway, great post. Love the 'prompt'!

  4. Great advice for avid perfectionists like me! There's parts of my writing that I love…and yet, there's also parts that make me cringe. Revision time! Oh, and I'm going to have to check out those books. I wonder if my library has them…

  5. Hey I also have a question I am on my 9 chapter of the book…it still needs alot
    of editing! anyway my problem is there any trick to naming creatures? for example I need names for the killer whales. I dont want them to be human but at the same time it has to be readable for a teen. I just can't come up with names? I even considered looking up whales in the wild and wasnt completely pleased with that. That has been my main problem do you have any advice

  6. Hello, Ms. Levine! I've been following your blog for a while now and I absolutely love all your advice! Regarding unlikable main characters, I find I actually like imperfect, flawed characters much more than the perfect ones! In fact, I think it fleshes them out and makes them so much more real. But it's true that there's such a careful balance you need to keep between the flaws and the virtues or you really do end up hating the character instead of relating to him or her. On the other hand, Gary Stus and Mary Sues are so terribly tiresome. If you do find a solution to your dilemna, please let us know!

  7. Hi Mrs. Levine,

    Thanks for answering my question! I'm going to save this post and look over it when I need some get-go inspiration. Thanks also for the writing books; I'm always on the lookout for good ones that inspire me to write. 🙂

    I had another question, though I'm not sure if it is EXACTLY writing. Sometimes, I have a perfect sentence, paragraph, or stanza that just pops into my head, perfect for a story. I can run it over several times into my memory. As soon as I try to put it in my story notebook, however, the words seem to flee me. What I'm left with is a pale apparition of the first bright idea. Do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks again for answering my question! 🙂

  8. You hermits are inspiring. Now I feel like diving into a poetry and writing through the night. 🙂
    Great post, thanks! I kinda bounce back and forth, to both extremes. And the global criticism . . . ouch, that really gets me! I haven't been seriously writing for very long, only two years or so. I have a hard time keeping my voice consistant throughout a long book. Last time I tried it sounded like a mix between Brian Jacques and Tanith Lee at the begining and J.R.R. Tolkien (minus the mountainous description) at the end. Hehe. Did you have that problem when you started writing?

  9. Loretta–You might look to science for names. In one of my PRINCESS TALES, FOR BIDDLE'S SAKE, I named a fairy who likes to turn people into toads Bombina, which is the name of a group of species of toads, and I called the queen of the fairies Anura, and that's the name of the order that includes frogs and toads. I've also written a post about naming if you look back, and there's a chapter on the subject in WRITING MAGIC.
    Horsey at Heart–Shining ideas always (I think) lose their luster when one starts to write. Then you just have to grapple with your words on paper or on the computer screen.
    Barie–At one point in writing ELLA ENCHANTED I reread PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and got stuck imitating Jane Austen's style. My critique buddies yanked me out of that.

  10. This post was very helpful. I have the same problem of wanting to make my story perfect. I like to be drawn into a book until the last sentence, but am having trouble imitating that with my writing style. Sometimes my story feels bland…

  11. Gail Carson Levine, I love your books! I recently received "Writing Magic" as a gift, and I loved the advice! Even better, it helped me to win a Fan Fiction Contest on a website called I took 3rd place, and I'm super excited! The story is called "Betrayed" and I entered under the screen name "TwilightFreak#1" (the contest is related to the Twilight saga). The story turned out great – I wrote and edited it myself – and your book was a huge part of why it ended up winning the contest! Thanks for writing such a wonderful book!

  12. Hi Gail I am doing a project on you in school! You are one of my favorite authors and have inspired a lot of the stories that I write. Is there anything you would want me to write about you in my research paper? I would love it if you could post a little paragraph about your life and why you decided to be an author. Thx

    Gail Carson Levine's biggest fan

  13. I'm not a perfectionist in writing anymore, thankfully, but I so agree with all your points you've made, some of which helped me overcome my own dissatisfaction at my work.

    Horsey at heart- I think I can help with your problem, though I'm no Gail Carson levine lol. When you have a brilliant idea, go easy with it. I think the over-excitement at penning it down (and the thought of penning it) rather saps out the actual brilliance of the idea, thats why it looks pale on paper. I've learned to just calm down, not think into the future of the story and type, or write, it like down like it is and it actually works. I hope that makes sense.=)

  14. LG–Congratulations on winning the contest!
    Aquamarine–I'm honored you're writing about me. I became a writer because of the great books I read as a kid. For the rest, I leave you to your research!

  15. Great post! I always need a reminder to not beat myself up over perfectionism. One way I try to make peace with my perfectionism is recognizing that it should mean a better finished product in the end. I just need to make myself get to that end instead of trying to keep perfecting it!

    And F, as per you comment "I fall somewhere between *hating* my writing to thinking it's *pretty good* on good days. Well, those scenes that I 'feel' are good." (Emphasis mine on *hating* and *pretty good.*)I think you are a perfectionist! I say this as someone who only recently found out I was a perfectionist myself. Whenever I admit that, everyone who knows me always laughs.

    You see, I was always *told* I was a perfectionist, but *I* didn't think I was a perfectionist because not everything I did was perfect. Somehow, finally realizing I was a perfectionist has freed me. Well, as free as a perfectionist can be. 🙂

  16. @Erin: Hm, I didn't want to label myself as an extreme case, lol, but that seems to be the case after all (I'm assuming perfectionist means somone who needs to have everything absolutely PERFECT, or they scrap the lot, lol)!! Haha, gotta curb that IE!! Again, my eyes skimmed the last few sentences of my novel, and I got into 'Must – Edit' (zombie style) mode. So I guess you're right.
    BUT. I can see I have a large task ahead of me. >< I need to work quite a bit on my novel. Heck, I need to work a LOT. 🙁 I don't know if that's still perfectionism, but I can see loads I left out.
    Oh, by the way, Ms. Levine – I wanted to thank you, and your friend, for recommending that I try writing another scene instead of writing in one-go. Though it's early yet – only a hundred or so words in (touch wood), it seems to be working!!! 😀

  17. Mrs. Levine:: Thanks for the advice! 🙂

    Mya:: Thanks! That really does help; maybe I am being over excited and "scaring" the idea away. Ha ha! 🙂

    One more question; though I don't know why, most of my characters are boys. The only problem with this is that sometimes, I can't tell how TO write—think—like a boy to portray him correctly. Do you have any advice on writing from a different gender's perspective?

  18. Hi,
    I've been lurking over your blog for a long time, but haven't actually commented. I just wanted to say that I love all your advice. This stuff about perfection is good. I've spent the past three or four years working on two young adult novels, for a series. I am now just getting to share with other people than my mom. I'm really trying to massage the first one, because I find the second one so much better. My main problem with the first one has been revising. I've revised it three or four times, and the "perfection factor" has itched at me, because I am so partial to the sequel. I have tried to blend old and new writing of the first one, but have mainly had to rewrite it, to get a good flow. I'll stop now, but I really admire the time you take to write these blog posts.

  19. Hi Miss Levine,

    While your writting a novel do you keep it in manuscript format from the start? How do you format your manuscripts. Ex: font, headings, chapter starts, scene breaks, margins, title-page,italics v. underlining etc. None of the article I read online seem to know what the modern manuscript format is so I was hoping you would know. Thanks in advance!:)

  20. Oops, I accidently deleted the original comment…
    Mrs. Levine, your blog is really amazing! It's like a writer's dream blog of tips and advice. I think that the whole perfection issue really applies to life as well as writing. I do have a question, though: when we are writing non-fiction pieces, how do we balance vocabulary and (understandable) english? Or facts with explanations? As a student, all of my writing that's not fiction feels flat compared to a professional, although that might be because I'm still a student.

  21. Ezmirelda–While you're writing, do what's comfortable. When you're sending work out, double space, paginate, and put your name and the book's title on every page. Use a 12-point font that's easy to read.
    Pippin–I'm sorry! I'm not an expert on nonfiction. My only nonfiction book is WRITING MAGIC.
    Aquamarine–Maybe it was EVER. I don't remember saying that, but I may have.

  22. What are your views upon starting a second book, when you're still currently on the second draft of the first book. I'm writing a fantasy series, and began working on the second book to keep the ball rolling, but I wasn't sure if this was a wise decision or not?

  23. F: I know exactly what you mean about seeing a lot of work left to do on your novel. I made good progress this weekend on mine, but came to the realization that it is going to take at least 2 more weeks. That would be more encouraging if that wasn't the exact same conclusion that I came to 2 weeks ago, and this has been going on for 4 years! 🙂

    But that is why GC Levine and things like her blog and posting on perfectionism are so inspiring to me – if I recall correctly it took her a while to finish her first book, but the result was ELLA ENCHANTED! If my result is a book half as good, I will be very happy.

    So thanks again Ms. Levine for this blog – it is really helping me keep going!

  24. Hello!

    My 9 year old daughter just adores your books and has written you a letter. She would love to mail it to you. Would you be able to send me a snail mail address to which she could send it? Thanks so much.

  25. Lydgia–I'm so glad your daughter enjoys my books! I'm reluctant to put my address online. She can write to me at HarperCollins Children's Books, 10 E. 53rd St., 19th Floor
    New York, NY 10022. They're slow about forwarding my mail, but I'll get the letter eventually.

  26. I understand. We will mail it to the address above and I hope you get it soon! Thanks for inspiring her to want to write to you. She decided this on her own (I hadn't even thought about it) and talks about the stories all the time. (Probably loses sleep because she is so engrossed in them!) 🙂 Thanks.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.