Margaret Atwood: Waiting for Perfection

"If I waited for perfection I would never write a word."

Let me introduce you, if you haven’t met already, to one of creativity’s most feared and lethal predators: the inner editor.

Now, I enjoy editing and improving writing.

No, really I do. You see…

  • I’m an English major.
  • I work as a substantive and copy editor.
  • I spent 18 months and 500 student papers as a writing and grammar tutor.
  • I’ve seen almost every type of writing problem and have at least marginal experience in trying to fix most of them (and actually enjoy doing so).
  • Also, I’m an anxious person by nature and altogether too concerned with making sure people will be happy with whatever I write or edit.

So I like to think that I know what it’s like to have an overactive mental editor. Or a voracious, overly confident inner "preditor," if you will.

And it can be a crippling thing to creativity.

I am incredibly, painfully aware of the embarrassing, terrible quality of my first drafts. Seriously. Ranting, incoherence, terrible punctuation, dry diction, muddled concepts, chaos.

And as I write, it’s hard to turn off my inner editor, that little voice that’s constantly saying “I can fix that. You see, here’s your problem. You just need to go over that part again because it’s almost right, but still so very wrong.”

And it’s tempting. Ohhh, it’s tempting.

Because I know how to fix things; I know how to make my writing good, if not great.

But the fact is, if you spend all your time editing, you won’t actually write anything.

And before long, you’ll be too discouraged or fearful to write anything because your inner editor is always telling you how stupid you are and how much you need to improve instead of celebrating the creativity you’ve managed so far.

Plus, you’ll run out of things to edit pretty quick, and then you’ll really be stuck.

So give yourself permission to write awful, muddy, mortifying first drafts.

Then go back and fix them later.

Make a contract with your inner editor, who is just sitting in a corner of your brain with a red pen, a megaphone, and nothing better to do than critique your writing every minute of the day.

And give her a day off.

Make a contract with her: “If you take a vacation now and look the other way for the next few hours, I’ll give you full control of the delete key for a bit and you can tear this writing to shreds and put it back together before any of my writing comes to light and reveals how bad at your job you are.”

Don’t let imperfect writing stop you from writing at all.

Because Margaret Atwood was right: if you wait around for perfection to strike your pen, you’ll be waiting a very long time.