When Perfectionism Turns Into the Writer's Enemy

Perfect writing won't sell a book. (See previous post.) But that doesn't mean we should settle for mediocre. Striving to make our books perfect can push us to grow into the kind of writers who might one day be ready for publication. If we shoot for perfect, than we'll end up being better writers and closer to our goals than if we didn't aim for it at all.

However, can perfectionism in writing become our enemy?

Many of you know my agent tried to sell two completed books to Bethany House and that they only contracted one to be apart of my three book deal. They didn't want to buy my second completed manuscript because the setting and time period are currently not popular among readers.

Truthfully, I was very disappointed they didn't want to give the second book a shot. I'd grown a lot while I wrote it and thought it was tighter, better writing with a more complex plot and deeper characters than the book they contracted. I was excited about the story (and still am!) and had wanted it to be my break-in novel.

Bethany House may take a look at this book again at some point, but for now, I'm shelving it. Even though my agent had another publishing house express interest in it, I'm focusing right now on working solely with Bethany House. I'm letting go of the dreams and hopes I have for that second completed book--for a time.

When we devote months of our lives to a particular book, spend money on a freelance editor (yes, I paid to have my non-contracted book edited), then spend more hours and weeks sweating over edits, trying to get our books perfect. . . it's incredibly painful to think of shelving our books, isn't it?

At some point we have to make a decision to cut the ties with that book and move on. But how does a writer know when it's time to shelve a book and start the next?

That point will be different for every writer. But I think we'll know we've reached a letting-go level when we've allowed perfectionism rule as queen. When we're continually striving to reach an unattainable level of perfection, we hash and rehash the book, we spend months, maybe years on the same story, trying to get it just right, but are either never satisfied or face continued rejection--then maybe it's time to let go.

Perfectionism could be stopping you from writing the next book. And that next book probably won't be perfect either, but maybe it will finally be: Good Enough.

Has perfectionism ever been your enemy? If so, how? At what point do you know it's time to shelve a book and move on to writing the next?


  1. You know, I'm not much of a perfectionist in my day-to-day life. I'm content with doing my best and leaving it at that. But for some reason, I'm a perfectionist in my writing, and I do think sometimes I have to learn to put a lid on this aspect of my writing-self. I can spend a month editing a single page if I let myself. It's sort of ridiculous. So I get my books to the point where I've gone through numerous revisions and my brain starts to spin, and then I put it aside and start writing another while querying my previous book. Hopefully one will interest an agent or editor someday soon!

  2. As soon as I saw the title in my dashboard I knew this would be a great post. Thank you Jody!
    Perfectionism has been my enemy, not because it keeps me from starting a new book, but because it drags out my finishing the new book. LOL I haven't shelved any of my manuscripts yet, but I know that day may come. Once I reach the revision/editing stage, I do my best, but it's in the rough draft that perfectionism really rears her nasty head.
    I'm sorry about your second book, but I'm glad that you know it can always sell later. Esp. if your numbers are really good with this first one, then Bethany might consider the second. Or another house, as you said. :-)
    Thanks for sharing! As usual, this is a great post. :-)

  3. I think perfectionism is a form of fear. We keep working at something or reworking trying to make it perfect. But that keeps us from putting our work out there for public view and scrutiny. Perfectionism may be a form of the devil you know.

  4. I am interested to hear what others think about when is the right time to leave a project alone. I can't imagine putting my baby in the drawer, but I suppose it is a possibility :)

    Thanks again for sharing all about your journey Jody :)

  5. Shelving a book makes me want to get out a paper bag and breath deeply into it.

    Then I remind myself, I've only submitted 3 times, and 2 agents wanted to know more. I need to stop worrying.

    BUt I have 2 sequels that are started (waiting to be finished!!) that I want to get back to soon, but in the back of my mind I think, "But... what if... the first one... doesn't sell? What good is the next 2 then???"

    But then God taps on my shoulder and says, "Um, yoohoo. Over here. Remember me? The guy in charge? Yeah. Stop your bellyaching and write!"

  6. The decision to lay a work aside will probably have to come at the suggestion of an agent/critique group, and ultimately the Holy Spirit.

    Thinking about it now, it seems impossible.

    Thanks for sharing that you had a professional edit of your work, I plan on doing the same thing. I've had one professional critique from The Writer's Guild and I still carry all the invaluable tips I received.

  7. I've never shelved anything because of perfectionism, but it does slow me down considerably.

  8. Definitely an enemy of mine, but I'm still fighting it. The very first book I wrote, I can't let go of. I wrote is so very poorly (without any studying of the craft of fiction writing way back) that there is lots to improve, it's just now getting where it should be.

    This is near and dear to me, Jody, this topic. I keep asking myself if I'm just way to obsessive with this story, but since I do keep writing new ones, and then come back to this one, I think at least I keep moving forward. I'm not putting all my time in this one story. I sure hope I soon feel like shelving it for good, though. I think I'm getting there. I hope I am.

  9. A fleeting enemy. I knew I needed to jump into writing book 3 before I editing 2.

    I'm curious about your wanting to work just with Bethany. A respectful decision, but as one who is continues to learn about the business, I'd love to understand more about that decision. Loyalty? Maybe a future post? :D I am gleaning so much from your journey.
    ~ Wendy

  10. I'm far too much a perfectionist for my own good - in all areas of life. It can become exhausting. Right now my focus is to just keep writing as ideas flow. I love some projects more than others, but I just write...write...write in hopes that when "the time" comes for me, I will be prepared, having made good use of the waiting time. Sometimes I shelve a project for just a short period of time while I work on something else so I can come back with fresh eyes and ideas to complete what I started.

  11. I drive my agent and editors crazy by sending them corrected manuscripts after deadline! I can't seem to leave it alone. I'll email them, "Hey Ellen! Could you read this version instead? Thanks!" Drives them nuts. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  12. Just because a book is shelved doesn't mean that's it. Maybe it just needs a long rest. Maybe it needs to wait for the market to change, or for a different set of circumstances. At least, that's what I'm choosing to hope. I've had to shelve one simply for strategic reasons. It would not be a good first book. It might not be a good second book. But I still hope that it has a chance one day when I'm more established! It is hard, though, when you're so connected to the story and others aren't ready for it.

    Thanks for this post! Have a great weekend!

  13. This is hard. I have some shelved picture book manuscripts that I still believe in, but I've sort of lost the drive to submit, or rewrite. That's not to say I won't come back to them at some point, or use pieces of them in something longer. I guess what I can say about this subject is this: writing is never a waste. Even if it ends up that you engaged in a work solely to bring your writing to the next level, it still was worth something huge. We can't lose sight of the longer journey. All published writers have works that will remain unpublished, but that doesn't mean working on them didn't help to prune the soul and the writer within. :) I think whenever there is a roadblock, either internally or external (as is the case for you), it's good to move in another direction, and know (as you do) that you can always come back to that work later.

  14. I have a handful of shelved (half-written) books. I'm still holding out hope for them.

  15. Perfectionism implies that something can be perfect, and I'm firmly believe there is no such thing. I have to trust my own instinct, the instincts of others I have come to trust, and Spirit, to help me know when to let something go. It's not easy.

  16. First of all, I suspect that you will gain such an audience with your first 3 books that you will CREATE interest in the setting/time period of your shelved books, because readers will want more JODY HEDLUND, and if you like that setting & time period, your readers will trust you and follow along. I bet it'll be book #4.

    Second... I love editing, but at some point the book just tells me that it's done. I guess it's the lawyer training: at some point writing has to go out the door, and I've gotten a feel for when that is.

  17. I haven't reached that point of letting go yet. I'm still striving for perfection, which for me at this point, isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm growing so much from the process.

  18. That's too bad you had to put that one away, but I understand and think you did the right thing. If another house had bought it, then they probably would've wanted another book from you in a year (or less). How would you be able to produce for both houses? Too confusing and a lot of stress.

    Lynnette Labelle

  19. A timely post for me...I just had to churn out some material for my third novel to get over my perfectionistic streak. :-)

    It may be providential that your second novel is not yet contracted. If you release it at a later point in your career, you may be able to have more say in the editing process. For a book you really love, more creative control may be a real blessing.

  20. On the YA I'm writing now I'm trying so hard to turn up the teen volume and really ignite this series. I'm striving for nothing less than perfect but I can't seem to get there. *sigh*

  21. It's funny because I'm not as bit of a perfectionist with my books as I am in every day life. That's not to say I don't strive to make my books the best they can be and to improve from one book to the next, but I think I reach a point on each book where I know (at that time) I can't go any further. I've shelved many books. But you know what? I tend to want to revisit many of them and apply what I've learned in the meantime. Would that be perfectionism seeping in or just wanting to apply new principals to an old idea?

    Have a great weekend, Jody!

  22. I completely agree with Katie's first comment, almost as if I'd written it myself! I'm horrible on myself when it comes to writing and could edit myself into oblivion. I've made great strides to NOT do this, and I'm seeing the fruits of my labor as I get closer and closer to finishing my first draft! :)

  23. Perfectionism is what makes me continually go back to editing before I'm done writing! It's a constant battle to keep from doing it.

  24. I love it that we're all wired differently.

    When writing, I try to make each book the best I can with the skill set that I have at that time. But with each book, I learn something new about the writing process, about the artform of the Novel.

    I look back on things that I've written and there are things I would change now because I've grown as a writer, but at the time, it was the best I could do.

    Then start a new project and implement the new stuff I'm learning. :)

  25. It's so hard to let go. I recently let go of a chapter in my novel. I wanted it to work, but in the end I realized it didn't. It wasn't easy to hit the delete key, but I did.

  26. It's so hard to let go. I recently let go of a chapter in my novel. I wanted it to work, but in the end I realized it didn't. It wasn't easy to hit the delete key, but I did.

  27. I see myself in C.J.'s comments (interesting that her initials are mine, too) and in Kristen Torres-Toro's. My shelved works are temporarily abandoned only because I'm not ready to pitch them. It may be because the timing isn't right for them yet, or because they really do need more work first. Either way fear plays a role and I am reminded to rely all the more on God.

  28. Perfectionism is sometimes my enemy because it causes me to procrastinate. I don't want to write because I may get it wrong. As if putting it off could ever make it right. I know, but still it is a force that gets me.

  29. Jody, this is a great post. Thanks for sharing it!

    I feel like I'm an odd duck even among writers. Oh, no. ;) (grin) I am not a perfectionist, though I DO strive for excellence. At any rate, I think readers don't expect "perfection"; they want a transforming experience in a novel. To me, that means passion should be valued over perfection. A writer can belabor every chapter, paragraph,and sentence--and end up with a work that is technically "perfect" at the expense of the humanity, heart, and passion.

    I am not trying to undervalue study and craft. Study of technique is critical in any art. One cannot become a virtuoso without years of study. But when the technique is solid enough, the musician must close his or her eyes and simply play--just let the music carry them. Then, the audience will be similarly moved, even if every note and phrase is not flawless. (I think my life as a musician makes me a different kind of writer in many ways.)

    Also--I can shelve books fairly easily. My first two novels will never see the light of day, and the prospects of my third look dim. My fourth, I thought, was strong, but the market for it slim. Now I'm working on my fifth. This one may be marketable, and it may not. We shall see.

    Thanks again for this thought-provoking post. Have a wonderful weekend!

  30. When practicing for a sign language special, I find there's a point where you leave it alone. Any more tinkering ruins it.

    This probably applies to our writing as well. Thanks for a great post as usual. :)


    P.S. Woohoo on 200 Followers! Congrats!

  31. Sometimes I just have to say "I'm done" and then hit the submit button and send it off for review. Nothing more can be done.

  32. I have an 845 page novel that an agent wanted me to divide into three parts so he could sell it as three books, and I couldn't see that the book could be broken down into three stories, so I set it aside. I have two other novels that after a go around with agents I have set on the shelf for the time being. This happens. But, someday, maybe something will happen with them, if not, as you say, we get better with each effort.

  33. Gee whiz, perfection follows me around like a nosey little sister. We're always fighting each other.

    I haven't worked long enough at my book to fret over perfection but give me some time! I agree though that high, even unachievable goals, like perfection, can push mefartherthan I thought.

    Your honesty is refreshing.

  34. I know what you mean. Perfectionism takes the power from the words somehow. They lose their life and get flat. For me, it's the writing for other people thing. There is a really fine line between where I think a story should go and where someone else wants it to go.
    PS Glad your only shelving temporarily. I'm sure writing the book made you a better writer, but it is like getting all dressed up and not going to the dance somehow.

  35. Jody,
    this was perfect advice:) I know it's best to take that energy and put it to good use on a new book. I've let a few of mine go and moved on--hoping to take what I've learned and grow with the next one.

  36. I'm definitely at that point with my first novel. I've since written a second and that one is in much better shape. The first one, I revised and rewrote and edited the heck out of it, but it's still not what I want it to be. I've started a third novel now and I think I am just going to tuck book one in a drawer. My time can be better spent moving forward.

    Great advice. :)

  37. Jody -

    This is definitely something to think about with every project. I'm definitely a perfectionist who considers time the enemy. I always feel I'm running out of time to finish something the way it deserves to be finished - as perfect as i can get it. I think you are absolutely right though. Sometimes we can let our perfectionism get in the way of moving forward. I've been doing that in my rewrites.

  38. I simply don't know.

    My strength can become a weakness. My husband and I have talked about this. The perfectionist has to finally decide to let it go -- to push the baby out the door and let it go to school.

    That's why blogging has been so good for me. I have to let these very imperfect, incomplete posts be up in a public place with my name on them. Even this is a kind of agony for me. But after a few edits, I let them go. Later, I see how very amateurish they are, and I groan. But I know I am in process and growing. I have to start with where I am, not where I wish to be.

    I'm still learning about writing the books. I have been drawing up detailed plans and starting books for months now. I think I am finally ready to take the plunge and complete one of them. But how do I know which one to do? I don't really.

    Sometimes, trying to read the market is not helpful at all. Not for the perfectionist! It has become a dilemma that has prevented me from actually completing my projects. I am quite intimidated by all these experts and I can easily imagine agents and publishers rejecting my work. I wouldn't blame them!

  39. Now I understand why actors say they don't watch their own movies. It's painful as we are our worst critics and we can always see room for improvement.

    I can set aside a book without much pain if I remind myself that the next one is going to be even better because I have grown.

  40. For me it is time to shelve a book when the edits are feeling more like work than anything else. When I dread working on it any more but know there is a lot of work left to do. Doesn't mean I love the story any less, just that I need to step back because I don't like coming to resent something I once loved.

  41. Hi Jody,
    I got into trouble once at BookEnds for making this point on Jessica's post about making your work perfect, and went on to blog a few times over at Aggie's Shoes on the subject. You're so right - for some people, the exhoprtation to be perfect means never completing and never submitting, and what they have to learn is that sometimes good enough IS good enough. I've leared this as I've begun doing journalism where I just HAVE to send copy off on time, and no one's come back and told me I was terrible because it was awful, even though I knew I could have made it better - that's helped me immensely with my fiction.

    The rule of thumb I givepeople who ask is that it's right to submit whe you reach the tipping point where a new edit no longer makes a qualitative but only a quantitative difference. I then have to add that I have no real way of teling when this is and can't imagine I will for many books to come, btu that it does at least help knowing what I'm looking for.


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