Is Perfectionism Killing Your Writing Career?

Image via Amber West WANA Commons

Image via Amber West WANA Commons

As y’all know, Spawn is in Kindergarden and now we have this lovely new experience called, “Helping with Homework.” Hubby, God love him, is new at this “being a Dad and helping with homework” stuff and has his own learning curve. He was at the kitchen table helping Spawn write out letters while I did laundry and cooked dinner. After a while, though, I noticed this homework thing was taking a really…I mean really long time.

Finally, I told Hubby I’d take over while he went and got a shower and when I looked at Spawn’s work, I immediately knew what was going so sideways.

Spawn wasn’t (yet) being graded on how well he wrote the letters. He simply had to DO them.

Hubby was trying to be a good dad so he was making Spawn erase “mistakes” and do the letter over. And, YES, the kid had a lot of nice looking Es but it was taking forever. 

What Hubby didn’t appreciate being new to this “teaching thing” was that Spawn’s just started learning to write and he is strengthening the fine muscles in his fingers and hands. His writing WILL look that bad for now. It’s no shock to the teacher. And, if his writing doesn’t improve? HA! Doctor!

Anyway, when I took over, Spawn wrote a letter and it was, of course, wonky and too small and off-center, but when he went to erase it, I stopped him and said the words I wish I would have learned MANY years ago:

“Perfect is the enemy of the good. Just keep going.”

Because he left his “mistakes” he then had a way of gauging the letters that followed and as he went, I noticed that his writing got better. Instead of being paralyzed that his writing wasn’t perfect, he was able to move forward. So long as it was legible?

Eh, close enough for government work.

Okay, so all was well and good and then the next day I get an e-mail I’d been waiting for. A year and a half ago, I wrote a mystery novel, but then I got seriously ill with Shingles. Shopping this novel just derailed, but now that I was healthy again? I was ready to get this sucker GONE.

Since we all suck at being honest about our own work, I begged an agent friend of mine to read it and give me a professional opinion. It wasn’t a genre she repped or even especially liked, but she is a rockstar who loves me and I trusted her to deliver the hard truth.

Kristen, don’t quit your day job. Stick to editing.

I sent her my novel about a week and a half earlier and of course had been hovering over my e-mail like a vulture over a baked roadkill.

*hits refresh 920th time*

When I open the e-mail, there is the news I’d been waiting for. My novel was solid and firmly in the submission phase.

Yay, OMG! OMG! Wait….*brakes screech*

Oh crap. I have to write a query letter.

I haven’t had to write a query letter for fiction since the Bush Administration. So there I am, uber-blogger-writing-expert-extraordinaire googling How to Write a Query *hangs head in shame*.


Because self-doubt descended on me like a teenage boy on a pizza. I help with query letters ALL THE TIME. I can write them for other people in about ten minutes. Suddenly, when I had to do it for MY book? It would have been easier to perform brain surgery remotely from space using a Clapper and a vegetable peeler.

Because if I have an opportunity to over think and overcomplicate something simple? SIGN ME UP!

So there I was writing all these idiotic versions of my query.

My writing style can be compared to the works of Janet Evanovich and…



…and the BIBLE because my words were inspired by ANGELS.

Kill. Me. Now.

After the 78th version of this query? I am done. Put a fork in me.

I felt all smart and virtuous telling Spawn to just keep moving, to not get fixated on perfection, but what was I doing?

No agent is asking for a perfect query letter. They want an interesting query letter.

We writers have to be really really careful about worshipping perfection, and I think fiction can be far more vulnerable because it is far more subjective. There comes a time when we simply have to SHIP. Just let it go. Time to move on to something new. We could edit forever. This applies to blogs, books, query letters and eyeliner.

The world does not reward perfect books, it rewards finished books.


Maybe it is time to let go of that first novel you’ve been working on for the last year three years six years. You know what? Maybe it just sucks and that is okay.

My first novel seriously sucked. Heck, my first novel was being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists until it was banned by the Geneva Convention.

I’ll tell you where the bomb is, just not another chapter of that BOOOOOK!

These days my first novel is in the garage because it pees on the rugs and chews on the furniture.

But remember Spawn and his homework? What was the objective? Finish the letters. It never said to make them super pretty and perfect.

Same with becoming a writer and the first novel.

Very often, our first novel is a learning curve. Just like Spawn is developing his fine writing muscles, we are too 😉 .

The first novel is our first attempt to do something most mere mortals can’t. Can we sit and finish a work spanning 60,000-100,000 words?

Or, in my case? 178,000 words.

Gimme a break! I was NEW! 😛

Yes, I was that writer. The one the agents talk about? It’s me. I am the “Alligator-in-the-Sewer” of the publishing world. I am real. I really queried a 178,000 word novel that was all genres and written for everyone to love and that would make an awesome movie and I already had started the screenplay. Did I mention merchandising?

But what I didn’t understand was that novel wasn’t meant to be queried or even published. It had already served it’s purpose and it took me a long time and way too many fruitless revisions to understand that. One of the best lessons I have learned in my career is to simply let go.

Shop it ship it or kill it but move forward.

Write the first book and move on. Write another and another. Sure, the first one might suck, but each one will suck a little less. We learn by doing. Writers only improve by writing MORE.

Perfect is the enemy of the good.

If we hope to be successful at this writing thing, we must master two diametrically opposite skills—latching on and letting go. We can’t finish if we don’t sink in our claws, but we also can’t finish if we fail to ever let go.

Virtually every long-term successful author didn’t make it with ONE novel. We make a good living at writing by writing MANY novels. But, if we don’t get good at shipping? Odds are we will never be able to write full-time. So breathe and just move forward. It gets easier.

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself too concerned with being perfect? Do you think you allow perfectionism to feed you procrastination? Are you still trying to “fix” that first novel and haven’t let go? Do you have trouble moving forward?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

August’s WINNER is lonestarjake88. Please send your 20 pages (2500 words) to kristen at wana intl dot com in a WORD document. Double-spaced and one-inch margins and CONGRATULATIONS!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook


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  1. THis may be the onlyproblem I don’t have. But it’s really fun to read your posts, Kristen. Thanks for sharing, because it’ll not only amuse others, but help them, too!

  2. Paralyzed by perfection describes my problem right about now. Thanks for the eye-opener. Never been perfect before, don’t know why I wanted to start this late in life.

  3. I had to grin at 178,000 words. My first was 156,000, though I managed to cut it in half and get it published.

  4. Dear Kristen,
    Okay. I’m inspired!
    I wrote the first draft of a manuscript last year and almost get sick to my stomach when I start to edit. I’ve submitted some essays and have had some published, but that big ole’ jump off the bridge next step has me flustered.
    I love reading about your experiences and authentic journey. It gives people like me hope 🙂
    Thank you!

  5. I just started a non-fiction Christian “God’s Help” book, called “Let God Build Your Life” based on some my blog posts. Don’t know if this qualifies, but really enjoyed your post…yes, we are perfectionists. Will reblog it on my blog…it’s very helpful.

  6. SO much fun to read your posts. My first novel is in a closet, and there it will remain. The second is on a 5-1/4″ floppy disk, and I will probably never see it again. Just as well. Both stories were great learning experiences in holding on and letting go.

  7. I love your posts, especially this one. Thanks again!!

  8. Thanks for the advice,you’re an amazing blogger and writer,Thanks.

  9. Reblogged this on Author Unpublished.

  10. Reblogged this on The BiaLog and commented:
    Awesome article on moving forward with our writing.

  11. OK (and I really hope all you authors out there will understand, especially authors of romantic fiction), I was visiting my first one the other day (still not “out there” but it will be) and apologising to my characters, with tears in my eyes, for having done such a terrible job with their story. My hero winked at me. “Don’t worry, darlin’,” he said. “I was your first. No guy ever objects to being a girl’s first.” I think I blushed. I’m sure I blushed. And yes, no matter how badly this may bomb, it’s the first one I’ve actually finished and, you know what, I’m damn proud of myself. The second one’s better and the third will be better still. Thanks for the encouragement Kirsten. Love, but love your blogs.

    1. Awwww, that made me tear up! *sniff*

  12. You are an amazing person, young Kristen Lamb. I very much like how you take your everyday experiences to extrapolate a lesson for us all. Thank you for your continued good advise.

  13. I love this post.

  14. heh. Finished, not perfect. That’s the key. Too bad people don’t learn that in kindergarten more often.

    • Melissa Lewicki on September 16, 2015 at 12:57 pm
    • Reply

    When my daughter was in 1st grade she wrote a report on Harriet Tubman. She needed to copy over her rough draft. She couldn’t make it past the first H on the title page. She couldn’t get that H perfect. Oh, the tears. Finally, i said, “Wouldn’t you like me to type it for you like I do your brother’s reports. Joy, happiness.
    We have a problem with perfectionism in this house. I will try very, very hard to remember that perfect is the enemy of the good.
    Thank you.

    PS Sigh….I just reread and corrected to typos before I posted….

  15. Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance.

  16. Great post

  17. I needed this blog now, after leaving my last few unedited chapters languishing on the table for months. Maybe your next blog will amend the old adage, “If it doesn’t move, paint it” into writer advice.

    I’m tackling those chapters today, thanks to you, great thanks to you.

  18. Okay. Hard, but will try. But….okay….you’re right. You’re right. I’m hubby.

  19. This is true for so many things in life. We can start at the top without any ability to do so never accomplishing our goal or at the bottom passing those who fall off their perch.

  20. I don’t “think” I’m striving for perfection, but I’m striving to get all the parts in order. It’s so the next one will–hopefully–go smoother first time out and with fewer rewrites. 🙂 One can hope!

  21. I needed to hear this right now, thank you! Lately I’ve put my novel to one side just for a short while (cue mocking laughter) to focus on writing short stories to post on my new blog, especially getting involved in flash fiction challenges. In theory, writing these “little things” that “don’t matter so much” was supposed to help loosen me up, get the creativity flowing, and help me develop my writing skills more so that I can go back and apply that to my novel. But in the process, I’ve actually been getting *worse* at the perfectionism thing rather than better about it. When you only have 100 words to work with to build a story, BOY can you be picky about every single one of them!

    So, whew, thanks for the pep talk. I feel like I could go whip something off and post it on only the *third* revision now… Maybe only the *second*! (Oo, wild child!)

  22. Is it wrong that I’m fully expecting the novel that I shipped (let’s see, the sixth one I finished) to be rejected? After all, I know it’s not perfect. Nothing ever is. But my eyes were crossing and I was beginning to despise everything about the story. So OUT it went.
    As for writing a query letter for fiction, we understand your pain. Isn’t it better to love writing the novel more than the query? Can’t wait to hear about your contract for this novel – and pick it up off the shelf at my local bookstore.

    • Melissa Keaster on September 16, 2015 at 3:21 pm
    • Reply

    Perfectionism is my own personal BBT. As bad as I am, my son (age 6) is worse. He doesn’t need Dad to hang over his shoulder and make him erase flawed letters. He does it himself.

    Today, I took a huge step, and sent my novel to beta readers. It’s nowhere near the quality I want it to be, but I can’t make it better without help.

    It’s hard to be new and a perfectionist. I know what I’m aiming for, and I just haven’t practiced enough to hit the target. And it drives me crazy. So patience. That’s important, too.

  23. Great post. This delayed my querying of newest book, but not nearly as much as the dreaded synopsis. But what a great post!

  24. My first novel was well planned and coming along well until procrastination stepped in. (I was 13 ok?)
    I haven’t given it another try yet but I actually want to finish it. Hopefully next year I’ll have the chance.

  25. Are you sitting down? My first fantasy novel was written between 2000 and 2003 and was (I’m serious) 950,000 words. I was so ignorant of the industry and word counts that I actually thought that was okay. I was convinced it was far shorter than Lord of the Rings. Whoops. I set to work trying to trim it and by 2006 had it down to a gutted, soulless, and voiceless 650,000 words. Years of illness followed when I didn’t write and when I returned to the book six years later I again tried to fix it, but it’s now retired. It’s been the writing course of writing courses and the world created remains viable, but my focus is now on better learning the craft.

  26. Thank you for this post! I try not to be a perfectionist in my writing, but I suspect that the curse of it has infected me from time to time. I will try to keep your lesson in mind.

  27. A few years ago I took this awesome workshop were the presenter gave him a copy of his query letter. I still use the outline. It’s golden. It’s so helpful when you have an example.

  28. I always say, “Done is better than good.” But in my heart of hearts, I always want it to be BOTH. 🙂

  29. My WIP first draft was 158,000 words. Who knew that typing up could take so long? I am looking forward to getting it edited into a readable shape, but I am relying on being thoroughly sick of it (by then) to ensure that I finally let it go!

  30. What is this “helping with homework” of which you speak? I was done doing homework twenty years ago. I just say, “Did you do it?” and sign the log sheet.

    OTOH, I did let my daughter dictate her first mystery “book” to me while I typed. I thought 5,000 words was pretty good for a seven year old.

  31. Boy, did I need this and now! I’m 40,000 words into my first novel and think I might just need to let it go, still debating. Thanks for great words of advice.

  32. Thank you so much for this! I was thinking about perfectionism just the other day, so it resonates at just the right time. I am so obsessed with perfectionism subconsciously that my ideal society is essentially angelic and any failure is rewarded with immediate and absolute damnation. Sigh. Must learn to let go…
    Good luck with the letter. Have faith. It’ll work out just fine.

    • karenmcfarland on September 16, 2015 at 6:50 pm
    • Reply

    Ack! The query. You know, I wrote the query before I wrote the book. How strange is that? It may not be perfect, but if anything, it will give me a good guideline for the actual query once I finish the book. If I ever finish the book. Actually, thanks to Marcy Kennedy, I’m almost there. Congratulations Kristen! I wish you all the best. 🙂

  33. Great post as always. Needed for sure.

    • Wendy on September 16, 2015 at 7:47 pm
    • Reply

    I’m slogging through my first novel right now. I’ve made the decision that this is my “learn how write a novel” novel. Your post was very timely reminder to not keep going back and rewrite before it is finished. So thank you for the reminder that getting it done is the main goal.

  34. Oh my God, yes! I am so much this. I need to start printing out all of these anti-perfectionism quotations and decorate my writing cave. And get my first novel “shipped”!

  35. Years back Writer’s Digest offered a gem: Done is better than perfect. I still haven’t mastered the skill, but I need to finish my current WIP quickly. Maybe this time’s the charm.

  36. Reblogged this on MDellert-dot-Com.

  37. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  38. Get it down, get it done.
    I figure the time for perfection is in the edit and eventual promotion.

  39. perfectionism held me back from creating anything for far too long. now getting the words out isn’t my problem, it’s in the putting everything together and editing down zone where I feel overwhelmed. great post!

  40. Reblogged this on Diary of A Lonely Writer.

    • Georgiana Harding on September 17, 2015 at 6:10 am
    • Reply

    Love this post, Kristen. You’re a hoot! Good luck with the query, I’m sure it’s awesome.

  41. Thank you, Kristen, for your honesty and the important reminder. Yes, I’m a perfectionist too. I try to use it (and have gotten somewhat better) at trying to use that trait to drive me forward. To finish what I start. As I get older, I’ve become a little more forgiving of myself. So thank you.

    (And if you had to do brain surgery from space, I think you should at least be allowed a screwdriver too. :>)

  42. This reading surely made my whole week surrounded with english papers. Being a college student, I always think that I have to write the most perfect paper or the world will crumble. Most of the time, its like the fate of the world is in my hand. What I really need is to take a break and write whats important, come to think of it that would, in fact, be less stressful. Loved reading this!

  43. I was able to let go of my first book by deconstructing it and using its better parts in future books. So instead of being left behind, it became a literary “organ donor” for my current WIP (plot line) and a future book (characters and trope). After some false hope of my last book finding a publisher at RWA, it looks like I have to drop into query hell again myself. I dread it!!

  44. Wonderful post, Kristen, and very timely for me. I have nineteen “perfect” chapters, and no story arc. Gotta start lettin’ it go, and figure out what the STORY is! Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  45. I’m getting better about “forget getting it perfect, get it done.” Blogging every day does that; knowing you have a deadline helps things move a little more quickly.

    I can sympathize with The Spawn.

  46. I resemble all these remarks! 😀 One quick question for you, Kristen; my first has been out for a year. Yes, maximum suckage. I read, practiced, and learned a ton since then and decided to write a sequel. Partway through said sequel, I realize my writing has developed to the point where I don’t think I should publish it until I rewrite the first one entirely.

    Is this sheer lunacy? Should I shelve the second one as well and move onto something entirely different?

  47. Kristen- I love this post for many reasons! First, I am the mother of 4 sons, one who just went to college. My advice to you and your husband- don’t sweat about anything until Spawn enters high school. That’s when stuff gets real. For now, sit back and enjoy the fun of his new adventures of learning and continue to encourage him. Second, I recently finished my first book and can relate to your words so well. Doubt and fear have a nasty was of creeping up and trying to get the best of us! Perfect IS the enemy of the good! If you get a chance, I’d love to have you stop by my blog Best wishes to you and your family.

  48. Yup. My first novel is also in the garage, currently being used as a prop for an unsteady shelving unit. I’m finally moving on to the next and it feels great to not have to be perfect anymore. Thanks Kirsten for your words of advice!

  49. I have no interest in writing a novel bug so glad you said a query should be interesting not perfect. I’ll apply it to my post.

    • Jo Edgar-Baker on September 17, 2015 at 6:01 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you for another brilliant post. I really needed a giggle this morning, and a kick up the butt. I’m up to the 4th draft of my first novel and torn between working on it and my second novel. You’ve just helped me decide to let the first one go out into the world as it is and concentrate on finishing my (hopefully) better second attempt. I think I’ve developed some skills as a writer to do a decent job of it. Thank you Kristen!

  50. Exactly, precisely what I needed to hear today. My (fourth) novel is almost, almost done. The cover is designed and everything–what am I waiting for? Thank you, thank you for the nudge!

  51. My 6th (that’s right, sixth) novel just won the Golden Heart for Paranormal Romance. The others make excellent doorstops.

  52. It’s not so difficult for me to write something imperfect at first. But it’s nearly impossible for me to not make every attempt to bring it as close to perfection as I believe possible. (And then to have to reevaluate if my version of perfection is actually accurate.) The whole “what’s worth doing is worth doing well” motto lives in my mind. But the world can be grateful that there is a keyboard between me and my writing because I was never forced to make an effort at good handwriting. So, yeah, I guess I should have gone for that medical career. LOL

  53. Reblogged this on The Boy With The Hat.

  54. There’s an episode of Castle where a first-time, bestselling novelist comes to the PD and Castle takes him to his poker game with other authors for some hazing. Michael Connelly had a line in that scene I’ll never forget: “You know what I did after I wrote my first novel? I shut up and wrote twenty-three more.”

    Best. Writing. Advice. EVER.

    • Stephanie Scott on September 18, 2015 at 4:00 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you for this! I’ve been helping writers with queries and pitching through blog contests. I have seen so many writers fret over the Dos and Don’ts of queries, which is totally natural. What I see sometimes in the contests are really solid queries but then the pages are not strong. There is such a focus on queries when really that’s just the pitch to the real deal, the writing.

  55. Hey Kristen, I sent you an email with some questions about sending in my submission. I haven’t gotten a response yet, so I was just curious if you saw it. I sent to the email that was in the post.

  56. 174K – ha! I can relate though my first (well second as you mentioned the first is practice) was 142,250 words before I learned better and cut it and cut it. Totally agree – done is better than perfect and you have to eventually send it and move the heck on.

    • BindedThoughts on September 19, 2015 at 6:56 pm
    • Reply

    I recently started following your blog and I gotta say I love your posts, especially this one. It actually relates with what I’m feeling right now because I just popped my “blogging cherry” and as part of a new blog, writing content is the hardest part. I have 4 or 5 draft posts but neither of them feels perfects so I keep editing and editing and editing…. I realize I just have to go with the flow.

    “Perfect is the enemy of the good. We learn by doing. Writers only improve by writing MORE.”
    These are definitely words to live by. WELL DONE!
    P.S if you do have the time, please stop by for a feedback at (HOWEVER it’s still a work in progess)

  57. Although the agent or publisher may understand about the imperfections in a query letter, or even in the manuscript, there are many, and I do mean MANY readers who hate typos and grammar errors in the books they read. They’ll close the book, no matter where they are in the story, after three such errors, and promptly dump it into the wastepaper basket. They will not refer it to anyone else; and they will not take it to a used book store for credit toward other books. As far as they’re concerned, the book isn’t fit to be read anymore. You may want to believe otherwise, but you’re just fooling yourself.

    Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s how things are.

  58. Two comments:

    1 – Glynis, that’s what editors are for! Writers write magic; editors are the perfectionists who fix the mundane errors. Beta readers are a super helpful middle step.THEN the manuscript is sent out. The point is that the *writer* has to stop somewhere before their story can move forward to the next step.

    2 – WRITERS: As an editor, I rarely have time to read a book just for pleasure. A couple of days ago, I eagerly pulled out a book by an author who has successfully published 35+ novels and is a total pro. After slogging through five chapters, I reluctantly acknowledged I was never going any further in this book. I wondered why, because her latest release was superb! I discovered it was published ten years ago, which showed me how drastically writing styles are changing. Same amazing author, but this incredible book of ten years ago wouldn’t even make it today’s market (without massive rewriting).

    So your early masterpieces will only be in style for a short time. If they aren’t being snatched up, it doesn’t mean you’re not a fantastic writer or you’ll never make it, it just means people are looking for peg leg jeans and not bell bottoms right now. 😉 Keep writing!

  59. I like the visual of Spawn’s homework … and the lesson that we actually need to write in order to improve. Back to the old chestnut of we can’t edit a blank page.

  60. Loved this (and the comments). So wise and funny. To finish reading a post smiling AND feel you’ve learnt something has to be good! I’ve never got past the ‘thinking about a novel’ stage really (though have done a kids’ craft book), but if I ever do, I’m definitely going to pop round here first.

  61. This is a blog post like medicine to me. Being notoriously insecure about my work I was probably longing to hear that beginners make mistakes. Nobody has been born perfect.
    Thanks a lot for this. I think I needed it.

  62. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Which is why I am back in college. I decided a few years back my writing was crap. I have been beating myself with the ‘my writing is crap’ noodle over and over and over. Now, I could be sitting here writing and writing, then editing, editing, and more editing and multiple rewrites that are necessary to practice this craft. Instead – I let my fear of being lazy (writing, editing, and rewriting is NOT being lazy – that is professional behavior – says my wiser self) get the better of me.

    BUT – that can also work against me as well, as you point out here.

    Working at being my own best friend instead of my own worst enemy.
    Thanks again Kristen!

  63. Kristen,

    Thank you for this post. I’m looking at entering my manuscript into a contest next month, and my desire for perfection is probably crippling me a bit.

    Kathryn Leigh

    • Talia Pente on September 24, 2015 at 8:14 pm
    • Reply

    —> Perfectionism <— Ahem. Kristen. I have a cease and desist ordinance against you for writing about me in this blog without my expressed permission. I have.Here.In my hands. I was going to mail it you but then I thought…maybe I need to rethink my motivation…hmm…and is the word desist…or de-cyst because that sounds kinda painful. Maybe I should research the origins of perfectionism in the human psyche… I should just go over it one more time.

    Oh. You get my point.


    1. LOL.

  64. Oh boy, did I need to read this! Thank you, Kristen.

  65. As a child, I was told “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Result: if I didn’t believe I could do something well, I wouldn’t bother to do it at all. It took a long time to get out of that mindset, and sometimes I’m still paralysed by perfectionism. I wish someone had told me “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” Thank you for this wonderful advice!

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