By Christina Folz
I’m a perfectionist — always have been. It’s a trait that is useful to editors, but not so helpful to writers. When I made the transition to my first full-time professional writing job after five years as an editor, it didn’t go well, to say the least.
For the first few months, my writing process consisted of desperately trying to wrangle words from a white screen that did nothing but swallow sentences. Every phrase I wrote, every word and punctuation mark, was scrutinized by my hypercritical brain the moment it had the misfortune of landing on my page.
Sometimes the creative part of my mind would be able to cross enemy lines long enough for me to blurt out a strong opening. But after that, every word came under fire, and the draft would constantly grow and shrink, grow and shrink, until the reductive part of my brain — which was by far more dominant than the constructive part — would take over and the draft’s rate of atrophy would begin to outpace its growth.
The result of weeks of work would be nothing more than a few overly edited paragraphs that didn’t say much but that I couldn’t find any technical fault with. All the other words had been blasted away before they ever got a chance to live and breathe and coalesce with other words to form something cohesive.
I still struggle with this — how to trip the censor long enough to let the good, bad, and ugly words flow. Because it’s only by letting it all out that you can begin the process of molding and shaping. Editing while you write simply doesn’t work. It’s like eating your food while you’re cooking it and then wondering why nothing is left at the end but a few sprigs of parsley.
A Lesson from Bio Lab
I was in college when my perfectionism really started to rage. In those days, I was a science geek rather than a word dork. I found myself getting flustered in genetics lab, where we were working on a project to isolate our own DNA. There were many steps: weighing powders, spinning solutions in a centrifuge, preparing gels that would tease out the DNA sequence based on the weight of the chemical base pairs within it.
One day, my professor came to talk to me after class because he could see how stressed-out I was getting. I told him I was just trying to make sure I got each step exactly right before moving on to the next. But then I would fall behind and wind up having to rush everything in the end, so I wound up with a big disorganized mess. He gave me some of the best advice I ever received:
He said: “Christy, it’s better to be about right than exactly wrong.”
Remembering my professor’s advice is a constant tonic when I bump up against perfectionism-induced paralysis. It’s better to make halting steps forward than to move only when you feel you can make “perfect” steps. Because we’ll never take perfect steps … which means that we’ll never move if we wait for them.
Writers Gonna Write, Haters Gonna Hate
These days, it seems that everyone is a writer. Everywhere you turn, you see blogs, long social media posts and tributes, all manner of personal essays and commentaries. At the same time, bashing writing has become more of a thing. It’s fashionable to point out people’s poor grammar and clunky sentences — to shame them for their so-called word crimes.
But I don’t do that. Whenever I see that someone is trying to tell his or her own authentic story, I applaud that and forget the rest. As an editor, I am paid to help people get their words exactly right, but off the clock, I think more like a writer. Because in the end, I believe that everyone actually is a writer; we all have something unique and valuable to express to the world.
Start your journey with an open mind and heart; you can worry about the difference between “there,” “their” and “they’re” later. It’s OK to make mistakes along the way. Be about right.
Christina Folz is senior writer American Association for University Women and vice president of AM&P.