In Defense of Perfectionism

The statue of David is still on display to this day—over 500 years later—but would it be if Michelangelo didn’t attempt to make a perfect sculpture?

Perfectionism is a gift and a curse. Before publishing a work of fiction, I spend an inordinate amount of time rewriting and editing it, long after most writers would consider it “done” and publishable. I re-read the manuscript again and again, going over every sentence, every word and punctuation mark, making sure it is precisely as I wish.

Of course every writer should ensure their work is free of typos and errors, but many would consider the extent to which I scrutinize my prose to be overkill. I fall prey to perfectionism, for sure. I could certainly save time by doing less line edits and publishing my work sooner, which would allow me to be much more prolific. But on the other hand, a degree of perfectionism is not only good—it may be essential to the creation of good art.

Once a story is published, it is out there in the public, archived on the internet forever. A writer has one chance to get their vision across the way they want it in perpetuity. Obviously there is a fine line to balance with perfectionism. If you forever try to perfect a single work you will never finish it and have nothing to preserve. The key is to strive for perfection until a tipping point of diminishing returns, then let go and release the work to the public.

H.P. Lovecraft could be considered a bit of a perfectionist in his prose, as he forbade any publishers from editing his stories upon submission. But perhaps that was because he recognized that whatever was published under his name would be attached to his legacy forever. All of his fiction stories are currently available to read in the public domain on this website, but Lovecraft (who died in 1937) cannot change or edit them any longer. He cannot remove the racism which he may have later come to regret. Each story is what it is. Once published, a story may as well be set in stone.

At least if the story is any good it will be set in stone. There are thousands of writers who were contemporaries of Lovecraft, many of whom were more popular than him at the time, whose work has not been preserved online. No one cared enough to find it, scan it, or transcribe it into digital form to save on the internet. No one cared enough to do so because their stories weren’t good enough.

Perhaps this is because those writers were not perfectionists. They published their work when it was merely “good enough.” Had they spent more time to make their prose—not perfect, as nothing ever is—but as close to perfect as they could possibly manage, then they might just have a website devoted to their entire oeuvre—as well as millions of fans who still read their work and build upon their mythos with fan fiction and adapt it into movies, comics, toys, video games, board games, and other media to this day.

That is what I hope to achieve with my fiction—a lasting legacy long after I am gone from this earth. That is why I am a perfectionist. Granted, perfectionism does not guarantee that my work will be read forever, but if I do not strive for perfection, then my fiction is sure to eventually disappear with the sands of time—like so many writers before me.

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