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When writing, I notice that I have this tendency where everything has to be 100% perfect. At first, I thought that this was no big deal and just a desire for perfection. However, today, while writing, I noticed just how serious of problem it can be.

For some background, I just finished writing the first draft of my first "serious" book. Because I am a college student, I really forced myself to get this basic draft done before starting the next semester. I was right in this assessment, as, being a full-time college student, I found that, at least during the weekdays, it is near impossible for me to write. I just have too much to do.

The only time that I can write are during Saturday evenings.

But, when I did just sit down to write, I noticed that all I was doing was re-writing stuff that I had already written. I'm not speaking about fixing punctuation or grammatical mistakes, but more of re-writing the same paragraph over and over because I just don't like it anymore. To this end, I found that, for a whole week, the only thing that I have to show for it are two paragraphs that I re-wrote several times.

My question, therefore, is this: How can I learn to edit a draft without giving into Writer-Scrupulosity?

(Sorry if this post came across as just venting, but I feel like this is a real problem that many different writers struggle with.)

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This is a real thing that plagues writers. It saps creativity under an avalanche of self-criticism. I try and look at it as a measure of how good I writer I could be, if I’d get out of my own way. The reasoning is that if I’ve such a keen eye as discerning my good writing from my dreadful dreck, then I must have some talent — otherwise I couldn’t tell the difference.

Since you’ve a completed draft, and are working on revising it, that suggests your aren’t being crushed under your own critical eye.

Revising your novel, you’ve got to worry about arc, character development, flow of information, etc, etc and so on. Pick one topic — plot for the sake of argument.

Read your piece, asking yourself is the plot right? You don’t edit anything, while you do this. You can leave yourself notes about what a poor verb choice you made on page 5, but you don’t change anything.

When you’ve read it and decided how your plot needs to change, then pick another topic — character development — and you read it with an eye on how the characters grown and change. Once you have a clear idea of the changes you need to make, you go ahead and make them.

Its about fixing the big pieces of the story first. The things that impact the whole of the novel before addressing the things that just affect the paragraph or page or chapter.

Focusing on one aspect of the novel — arc, plot, world building, flow of information — lets me tell myself that fixing a goofy sentence is a waste of effort since the paragraph, the page, the chapter might not survive the revision.

Its very iterative. There aren’t precise lines between whole story stuff and stuff that impacts only the Act or the chapter or the scene.

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To start, it is impossible to leave a trail of perfect writing, because stories change as you write them, and create details and emotional scenes, as you invent them. You get to know your characters as you flesh them out, and have to make decisions about their emotions, impulsiveness or caution.

It is pointless to write a perfect Chapter 1 when it is going to seem be completely inappropriate by the time you finish Chapter 12. You'll read that perfected Chapter 1, and find it wanting.

I write wearing (figuratively) three different hats.

I see three hats: Critic, Revise, Create.

Specifically, writing Critics never rewrite, they make notes, for the author to read later, and choose to Revise or ignore.

It doesn't hurt to critique yesterday's writing, but do not change the text of what was written at all. After a paragraph make notes if you think it needs changing, as if reading the work of a stranger. Set them in the text, apart, using some characters you don't use in writing. I use {Curly Braces}.

Put your commentary after the paragraph, for example:

{There is no sensory information in this scene.}

{Seems too cliché.}

{The word 'sesquipedalian' applies here.}

If you like, you can also use the outline writer's trick, use the {} to summarize the author's intent for the paragraph and speech:

{Caleb is lying, Alice doesn't suspect, but will recall this when she hears about the crash.}

In short, why is it even included?

What purpose does it serve?

Does it matter at all?

What aspect of the character does it show? What plot point does it advance, or create?

What payoff does it deliver?

What bond does it create?

What complication does it create?

A sex scene could do many of these jobs.

Other than perhaps correcting an actual punctuation error, like forgetting a closing quote mark, write critique for the author. Do not fix it, just critique and move on.

Changing it is the Reviewer's job.

When you are done with your Critic's hat, put on your Creator's hat and write something new. Revise new stuff all you want while you are creating, but just the new stuff that you write.

Periodically, say once a week, you put on your Revision hat. Search for the curly braces, and decide whether you want to address those critiques or not. Either way, delete the critique once you address it. Only deal with previously written critiques, and fix only them.

If you think your {notes} are misguided, delete them or fix them. Or fix the offending paragraph and revise your {notes}.

After fixing the paragraph, you can delete the {notes}, or replace them with {}, an empty you will find when searching, to remind you to Critique it next time.

Then, do not read to the next {note}, search for it. You are wearing your Revision hat, not your Critics hat, and not your Creative hat -- This is not your "new story mode", this is Revision only. Fixing problems.

Keep these tasks separate. All you can do in Critique is add, change or delete {notes} and correct purely mechanical errors like punctuation and spelling. Search for {} empty notes if you want to critique something the Reviewer fixed on a previous day.

All you do on a Review days is address {notes}.

All you do in Creative is create new stuff, no revision, no critique.

In Creative don't worry about what is going on before, your job is to move on the next scene. Presume that stuff will be fixed, on Revision Day.

Set a schedule for these.

The first thing I do on writing day, to get into the flow, is review and Critique of what I wrote last time, with zero revision. Just {notes}.

Then I work on Creative. If I don't have any ready ideas for creative, I will turn it into a Revision day, and start from the beginning to search for {notes} and address them. But in that mode, no new {notes}.

Revise as an author, not as an editor or critic. Leave an empty note if you want to go back and look again later.

Trying to do everything at once will just get you mired down.

And remember, the first draft of a book is always, always just how you get to the details of who your characters are, and how the plot works.

You cannot leave a trail of perfection. Chapter 1, Chapter 12, and Chapter 24 will not agree with each other, they are just approximations of how the story mechanics work and the characters navigate the plot.

So don't even try to leave a trail a perfection. Get to know your characters in detail, and your plot in detail, then go back and get things back into alignment. And then do it again.

Finishing a novel is, for me at least, a process of finer and finer alignment of characters, plot, and their environment, in each draft, until I cannot find any flaws.

If you imagine an archery target with six rings, a bullseye in the middle, then the first draft each scene is just an arrow, and all you want to do is land it somewhere on the target, anywhere on the target. In subsequent drafts, we move the arrows closer to the bullseye.

This is an incremental process, to get better in each draft. Not just "different", but better, more suited to purpose. It is your job, in Critique, to understand the purpose of the scene or passage, in the story.

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It is difficult to tell without being more familiar with you whether (1) you suffer from debilitating perfectionism, (2) your writing skill isn't yet developed enough, or (3) this is your way to write.

There are prolific authors who write two thick novels a year, and there are less prolific authors who write a handful of slim books in their lifetime. There are many famous examples where writers have been struggling with finding the perfect shape and form of their work. Ernest Hemingway famously rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. Robert Musil worked on his novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften over the course of twenty years until his death without finishing it, and yet it is considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century.

But if you want to become more prolific, there are several strategies:

In How to Write a Lot, psychologist Paul J. Silvia argues that to become prolific you need to make writing a daily habit and approach it as a job. Using examples of famous writers, Silvia shows how writing at a fixed time daily helps professional writers to build a habit of writing that helps them remain fluent and how breaks in this writing routine tend to clog the creative flow.

Approaching writing like a job means that you let nothing keep you from writing, neither "not feeling like it" nor your family or friends or other things you might need to do. You wouldn't let any of that keep you from going to work if your livelihood depended on it, either, so if you are serious about writing approach it as if you were employed and just had to show up at the same time every day.

In cognitive behavioral therapy pathological perfectionists learn through experience that mistakes don't have the life-threatening consequences they subconsciously fear and that 80% quality is sufficient in most situations. We cannot here treat the causes that might underly your fear of failure (you need to see a therapist to do that), but you can do the exercises that help people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder:

  1. The more important a work feels to you, the more you will be afrait of failure, and the more you will feel blocked. Therefore, instead of "your first 'serious' book", start with a project that is less important and where failure isn't as bad. As you gain the necessary skills, and as you learn that your readers will be happy with what you think is an imperfect work, you can slowly approach works that are more dear to your heart.

  2. Write fast and without revising. If you feel your book wasn't good, do not attempt to correct the mistakes, but put your first draft away and rewrite the whole book from scratch. (There is one popular fiction writer, whose name I forget, who writes in his how-to-write book that he usually rewrites his whole novels in this way up to seven times.) Repeat until not you (!) but your beta readers are satisfied.

  3. Write the next book instead of revising the first one. Especially if you are a beginning writer it is likely that your first book will be riddled by mistakes that cannot be remedied and will keep you stuck on that book forever. Put that first book in a drawer to maybe rewrite it later when you have gained the necessary skills.

Remember, most, if not all, published popular fiction is imperfectly written, and most, if not all, published writers are unhappy and unsatisfied with their earlier works. So don't attempt to write a perfect book, unless you don't want to make a living with writing and you really want to spend decades on endlessly polishing that work.


You say that currently the only time you can write are Saturday evenings, and I assume you will be wondering how you can become a writer without building that daily habit Silvia recommends. There are two things I can say to that.

Writing is like any other skill. It requires constant practise. If you wanted to be a professional athlete and only had Saturday evenings to train, you very likely would be unable to compete on the highest level. Artistic skills are no different. Comic artist Travis Charest said in an interview that if he didn't draw daily for some time he became stiff and his drawings awkward. Of course, his stiffness and awkwardness are probably still on a level that much surpasses what most aspiring artists can do, and yet he felt it hindered his artistic expression.

So, constant practice is a requirement for mastery.

On the other hand, there are many examples of writers who didn't have the luxury to write every morning and still were successful. Stephen King wrote his first published novel Carrie in the evenings after his day job. One science fiction writer (I believe it was Anne McCaffrey) said she wrote her first novel in the breaks between classes as a teacher.

So, apparently you can write successfully, even if you cannot take four hours off each morning. But, both King and that SF writer wrote more or less daily! And, King had been writing short stories and three other novels before he finally got his fourth novel published, so he had had a lot of training as an aspiring writer and it wasn't the first thing he ever wrote.

Many aspiring writers get so attached to their first work that it blocks them completely. They want to write the perfect novel, when what they would need to do is what every other artist, craftsperson, or sportsperson does: practice and practice and practice and fail and fail and fail, until you finally succeed.

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