The curse of “perfection”

The other day I read a comment (about a knitting pattern, but it still applies) where someone said “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect.”

It wasn’t even an exorbitant amount of money. Just a very normal price for a knitting pattern. Probably too low, even, but we don’t need to get sidetracked into discussions of fair pay for designers. The part that’s stuck with me is this idea of “If I’m paying for it, then it should be perfect.”

Putting your writing (of any kind) out there for other people to read is a scary thing, because it means random strangers can pick it apart. Insult it. Post that they can’t believe they paid $X for this. Sharing your writing means opening yourself up to critique, criticism, and insults of something you’ve worked hard on, and done all you could to “fix,” but …

Errors happen.

Especially when your document goes from person to person and each is focused on perfecting one aspect of it. Your editor fixes your commas, maybe, but then once it goes into layout, you end up with a weird line division of a multi-syllable word. It’s not because layout wanted to introduce an error. Layout did exactly what layout is supposed to do. And hopefully you catch it in the proofs stage, but in the proofs stage you’re looking for errors and trying to build your index, working under a hard deadline.

I think it’s time for Gaiman’s First Law again:

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.”

Neil Gaiman

We’re human. All of us, no matter what our title or CV or reputation. We’re all trying our best to contribute what the process – and it’s a long, long process – needs from us so we can end up putting something in your hands. We read our own words so many times, trying to approach them from so many mindsets, that a mistake isn’t a sign of neglect. Everyone involved is doing their best and laboring over the document and reading so closely that yes, sometimes we miss something that a casual reader will think is glaringly obvious.

There will always be errors, and there will always be people pointing out errors. I guess my fear is that someone will read “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect” and then … never try. Never write something in the first place. If a complete stranger has such high expectations, never having met you, imagine how high your own must be since you’re fully aware of your own capabilities.

Have you ever heard this one?

A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.

old academic adage now apparently posted everywhere without an accompanying citation

Stop expecting perfection. Of other people. Of yourself. If perfection were a requirement, nothing would ever be published. We’d all be stuck in the pit of despair and red ink. Forever.

If your idea is going to get out there, you need to make peace with the fact that it won’t be perfect. (Whether you really want to make peace with the fact that strangers will communicate with you solely to point out errors is your own decision.)

There are some things you have no control over. There are some things you just have to let go. One of the first is others’ idea of perfection. And one of the second is your own.

What do you think? Can writing ever actually be “perfect”? (And do people send the same number of comments about something if it is?)

8 thoughts on “The curse of “perfection””

  1. Thank you for writing this. It is a good reminder that humans make mistakes, and we should not let the fear of failure prevent us from trying. The perfectionist culture is a kind of shackles that keep those who are learning from growing, changing, and experimenting. We need space to make mistakes and fail because those are the interesting stories that propel the next project forward.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, man, this post punched me in the face, and in a good way. I DO have that thing where I think if I paid money for something, I want it to be of good quality. I don’t say perfection, but definitely good quality. I’m currently reading Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, a book that came out in the 1970s and has been published and republished and republished. And saw a typo. I was totally surprised. Not because I paid money, but how many eyeballs went over this book and missed such a simple typo?? (the word was “fall” and should have been “full”). But, several things are going on here. Just because a book is republished does not mean it’s re-edited. It’s re-up-for-making-a-profit, basically. It’s re-loved, newly loved, etc. That tells me maybe a book, even a famous one, is “done” at some point.

    If I pay for an e-book, I want it to be formatted correctly. I’m finding this is often not the case. I’m assuming publishers are feeding the text through a machine that spits it out digitally. I was quite mad before I realized what was happening to OLDER books (30+ years typically). This ! may turn into this I. So I was reading books thinking, “What a sloppy horrible job the editor did!” And then it dawned on me this is a tech issue, not an editor issue. But…..are publishers just trying to get more money by offering e-books? Do they not look them over before putting the e-book on the market?

    I’m ranting about something I’ve noticed in the last year because I bought so many e-books during quarantine. To your point, though, you made me think about being a nicer human in my head (I don’t point out errors to authors, and if the author is self-published or with a small publisher, I don’t point out the errors at all on GTL because these people are doing their dang best to get out interesting works without the money behind the big publishers and their editors).

    What are your thoughts on big-name authors who publish A LOT and have big publishers, but the books have a lot of typos? Mercedes Lackey comes to mind. Granted, I never buy the hard cover versions of her books, just the $7.99 mass-market paperbacks, but that shouldn’t affect editing, I wouldn’t think.

    Thanks for this great post! I’m going to share the link on next week’s Sunday Lowdown.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve taken some time to think on this because you’d think that “big name author + big name publisher = fewer mistakes,” but … not being either of the first … I’m not sure how it all actually works. It would be wonderful if all the resources could be put into production, but I’m guessing that a lot of that is directed toward marketing and not necessarily proofreading.

      I’m sure you know that proofreading sucks, and proofreading your own stuff is HARD. In an ideal world we’d catch any errors introduced into the manuscript during typesetting, etc, while we’re reading proofs, but … man. The amount of time and full-on concentration needed to proofread a manuscript is intense. You’d think “A couple weeks to read a novel? That *I* wrote in the first place? No problem.” But … it’s a lot easier to overlook typos when we already know what it’s *supposed* to say.

      There’s also the timing. When we get proofs, the book is close to publication, but the while publication timeline means that, Mercedes Lackey or not, we’ve already moved on to the next one. Even producing one workable manuscript a year means overlap, and I can’t imagine having *that* many going on at once. There’s only so much concentration to go around. That, combined with not knowing how publishers are allocating their hours/dollars, means … I think my answer is a shrug.

      In a perfect world, we’d be able to catch our own typos first time, every time, and nothing new and weird would be introduced along the other steps of the process. In the real world, we’ve got so many people handling manuscripts along the way, and only so much time to both revise and edit. I don’t think we can hold anyone to standards of perfection, but we might start wondering how publishers budget their allocations for the novels they print (and how many people accept the risk of typos and go for the hardcovers, anyway, which might mean the publishers shrug and figure whatever they’ve got going is working).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooooooh, this is an interesting answer. Thank you! I didn’t even think about projects overlapping. Lackey, for example, may publish 2-3 books a year in just one of her series. As I’m reading, I can just FEEL that her book needed an editor for content reasons, but her loyal fans (guilty) just buy the books anyway. I have to imagine that the bigger an author gets, the less is allocated to editing because the person has a hardy fan base. We readers may be spoiled with Stephen King because he was an English teacher before he started writing, so he’s got a solid base of skills (this doesn’t mean he has zero typos, but he’s less likely to write things like “I’m going to self-motivate myself.”).

        I’d love to know more about publisher budgets. I find it fascinating. What I really want is a memoir written by someone who used to work in publishing, and not just the slush pile room.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. As a former English teacher myself I still come up with such gems as “his hair was too dark to fall into his eyes” and “a flip switched.” 😆 But hopefully I catch those before anyone else sees them …

        Part of it is how it’s easier to catch others’ mistakes, so we’re seriously skewed when it comes to our impressions of our own work. If you’ve ever had a good editor go over your stuff … yikes. (And if you haven’t, think back to getting an essay back in English class. Because editors’ comments are much more thorough.)

        I don’t know if any books that are tell-alls about publishing. All the ones I’ve heard of are directed at authors (for some reason).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: