London Writers’ Meetup: why are we slaves to perfectionism?


As usual, this month’s London Writers Meetup saw a lively group of writers from across the world meeting for advice, feedback and just to connect.

Among the attendees was a US screenwriter now relocated to London and working on a historical TV series; a murder-mystery writer from Cork, Ireland with a novel formatting query; a writer currently working on a story about historical sea battles; a published poet who draws from people in her life as inspiration; a playwright working on a book of poetry and short stories; and several short story writers looking to expand their ideas into novel writing.

A theme usually emerges after introductions. This month, it was perfectionism, and how to avoid it. I set aside the lentils I’d been lining up in an exact grid and took a keen interest. I’ve always worked as a copywriter, so I find it painful to just throw words down and leave them. This has meant that rewriting my current novel has taken forever. It’s the longest activity ever undertaken by a human being, ever. It’s longer than a Bruce Springsteen concert. Why? Because I won’t rest until every line is perfect.

As well as taking aeons to finish a draft, it means that going back to ‘kill my darlings’ later on is doubly painful. A case in point: my novel is currently at 106,000 words. The thought of culling over 6,000 of those to get it where it needs to be makes me break out in a cold sweat.

It’s just fear in really good shoes.

Elizabeth Gilbert

I am the most obvious type of perfectionist: a writer who struggles to let anything go; who struggles to keep the words on the page without fiddling endlessly with them. So far, so usual. But through talking in the group, it soon became apparent there are other types of perfectionists as well – and some of them are the very readers we’re trying to win over. Eek.

A writing forum on Mumsnet recently had a popular thread: ‘Inaccuracies in fiction‘, where readers shared anomalies they’d found in novels – from simple spelling mistakes to historical inaccuracies and gaping plot holes. Many of the posters on the forum said that spotting such inaccuracies ruined the books for them, and sometimes meant they would hesitate to read anything by that author again. Harsh, and a tad terrifying.

For authors, it seems the quest for perfection doesn’t even end in publication. Debut novelist (and literary editor) Kasim Ali wrote recently in The Bookseller that since his novel Good Intentions was published two years ago, he has “spent the better part of the last two years filled with intense feelings of shame and embarrassment. I feel, in a single word, like a failure.” One of the biggest reasons he gives is: “In reading the book back, I have squirmed with embarrassment, wanting so desperately to change things, move things around, completely rewrite the entire thing.” I feel for him, as that’s something that can’t be changed.

I’ve never felt the need to read any of my published work once it’s out in the world, and it’s probably for that very reason. Although now they’re staring at me from the bookshelf, tempting me down the post-publication-perfectionist rabbit-hole.

So what is the answer to all this perfectionism? We talked about it in the group and decided that in writing a draft, the fear of your writing being imperfect can inadvertently ruin a story. If you become fearful of making even a small change that could topple the house of cards you’ve carefully constructed, then you run the risk of under-developing the story, or fiddling around the edges without solving the real problem with the story.

Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, says fear is often at the root of the questions she gets asked by writers. “It’s what I call the haute couture, high-end version of fear, which is perfectionism,” she said to Oprah Winfrey. “It’s just fear in really good shoes.”

So maybe that’s the answer. If you’re an author, don’t be afraid to kick off your perfectionist shoes and get your feet dirty in a draft. And if you’re a perfectionist reader, please try to remember that writers are only human – and nobody’s perfect.

London Writers’ Meetup

The London Writers’ Meetup is a friendly, informal get-together for to meet, exchange ideas and offer encouragement.
Second Tuesday of every month on Meetup.

Main photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash