On Being a Slow, Inefficient, Imperfect Writer

I’m reading Betsy Lerner’s FOREST FOR THE TREES right now, and something I read last night really resonated with me. It was about how writers often experience life at a remove because we’re constantly narrating it in our head – telling ourselves stories.

Lately, the narratives in my head have been kind of negative.

Confession: I’m a perfectionist. I don’t like not being good at things. I basically want to be the superbest, everyone’s favorite, etc. It kind of sets me up for disappointment sometimes?

Example: About five years ago, I attended a weekly power yoga class. Then my teacher moved away, and through a combination of other factors, probably including my anti-anxiety medication but also quitting my job and not walking to/from the metro every day, I’ve gained a bit of weight. Last year I really missed yoga, the physical stretching and the mental, so I tried a few classes at a different studio. I was not great at it. I felt embarrassed and out of shape, and frustrated that it was so challenging. I kept thinking in a very self-hate-y way that I used to be able to do X or Y, and end result? I didn’t go back. But I still really missed it.

Today I went to my first Gentle Yoga class. It feels good. There are lots of modifications, and the pace is slow, and sometimes I was tempted to feel embarrassed that I am not the Superbest Yogi Ever. But as I was lying there at the end of class I kept thinking – this is better than doing nothing. I can build on this. I have got to learn to be okay with where I am.

I have not been feeling okay with where I am re: writing, either. Not re: publishing, actually. I feel crazy lucky to have so many awesome readers who have been in touch lately! To have a new fansite! To have the beautiful BORN WICKED paperback out (and on an endcap display at B&N right now)! To be going on tour next month!

But, well, I’m writing book 3. And somehow…I’ve gotten all twisted up in word count. With writing goals. With all those articles about how to have a more efficient writing session! How I could be writing 10k a day! And it’s been totally sabotaging me. Somehow, instead of thinking about what Cate’s feeling in this scene, I’ve been thinking about numbers. How long is it taking me to write this scene? How many writing days do I have left before my deadline? How many words have I written today? How many words do I have to write tomorrow, in this scene, or in this chapter? How can I do this better better better? And then if I write 700 instead of my goal of 1500, WOE. If it takes me two hours to write 1000 words, I feel like a hack – even if they are actually good words! I read on twitter about how friends write 3500 words today or 1500 words in 30 minutes and have three books coming out this year and, oh Lord, I just want to quit. I can’t do it that fast. I am not that efficient. I suck. Why am I even trying? I know I dropped this thread between ch 3 and ch 4 and I am not sure the beginning quite works yet and I haven’t figured out that plot point coming up and ..

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m trying to stop doing that. To respect the process.To be slow and inefficient and imperfect. To have discoveries as I go along instead of showing up perfect (since that’s not possible anyway). I wrote about this a little when I broke up with NaNo, acknowledging that fast drafting doesn’t work for me. But I’ve still been sitting over here, judging myself for it. And it’s taken all the fun out of writing for me lately.

If it’s not fun anymore, what the hell is the point?

I have got to learn to be okay with where I am.

And if this is something you struggle with too – ’cause I think a lot of us do – I’m right there with you.

34 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I am the same way you are when it comes to writing- I can write fast when I choose, but it has to be when inspiration strikes. Otherwise, I am a somewhat slow writing perfectionist! I'm trying to finish my first ever draft (after years and years of unfinished short stories) and while having personal deadlines and goals are important, I try not to beat myself up over it- which isn't easy for me, I constantly stress myself out! I'm also planning a wedding, and have reading goals and a job, etc. so just writing in general should be the accomplishment. And the fun! That gets lost sometimes. I want to write for the joy of it. I think you write perfectly! If it's 700 great words, it's better than 2,000 okay ones. P.S. Oh I can't wait for Star Cursed and I'm sure Book 3 will be just as brilliant, whenever it arrives 🙂

    1. Oh, good luck finishing your draft! Finishing is what's key, no matter how long it takes you. And it sounds like fitting in ANY writing between a job and wedding planning is a great accomplishment.

      Thanks for saying such nice things about my writing! *hugs*

  2. Thanks, I so needed to read this b/c I've been feeling the same way re:writing…and have to keep reminding myself that every writer is an individual & writing is not a competitive sport.

    Lovely blog btw.

  3. katyupperman

    This post is so timely and honest and amazing. THANK YOU. You have made me feel less crazy in a crazy industry, and I'm going to make the same vow as you: Respect the process for what it is… Different for everyone!

  4. This is a great post. You should go check out Rachelle Gardner's post today, too, which runs in a similar vein.

    You're so right — and I've had to force myself to stop comparing my own word counts with what other people say on Twitter. Someone writes 3500 words in one day? That's fantastic and amazing for them. I can't do that. If I did, it would be crap. I'm a perfectionist, too, and I like taking time to work through a scene and let it happen naturally. And your yoga class comparison — SO FUNNY because I was just thinking the same thing about step aerobics, how it's not the same at my new gym, how, two kids and 50 pounds later, I'm not the quickest, highest jumper in the class, and I HATE NOT BEING THE BESTEST STEPPER OMG.

    Personally, I've stopped tracking my word counts. I just stopped caring about them. Kinda like with weight, it's just a number. I've started feeling proud of the quality of my scenes, even just tiny moments between characters. Just like some people are all about the pounds (which is absolutely fine if it works for them), I'd rather feel good about my clothes feeling a bit looser. I have no idea how many words I wrote yesterday, but I know I wrote half a chapter and it was pretty good. (I mean, it'll need some cleaning up, but, ya'know…)

    Great post. I'm glad you wrote it.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Brigid! I'm glad I'm not the only competitive one when it comes to exercise class, ha! I think you're right though – it's good to find ways to track progress and be proud of our achievements without measuring the numbers. Like, I really like a new character I introduced today, and I'm excited to see where it goes next!

  5. Loie

    Oh Jess, what a lovely post….so honest and real, thank you for writing this! Totally resonates with me – totally understand you about the yoga class too. I often feel that way with writing, psycho-analysing it to the point where I'm not having fun anymore and worrying about things I shouldn't … like word count and how long its taking me…feeling crappy about a crappy first draft lol.

    But I've learned to try and let go. To breathe, clear my mind, and keep going. I know those feelings will come back, its a constant process haha…but posts like these help bring clarity 🙂

    <3 Loie

  6. smhollowell

    Yes, yes, this. I've noticed more and more that my eyes are continually flicking down to the word count, and I start writing completely needless things just to make the number go up. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of not-so-great work and only makes me frustrated with the story.

    I think I'm going to make "I have got to learn to be okay with where I am" my new mantra.

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm with you – it's more important to write the RIGHT words than to write lots of the wrong ones! (But it's okay sometimes to write the wrong ones, too, in the process of discovering the right ones…)

  7. Hi Loie,

    Are you my long lost twin?

    If I start something I have to instantly be perfect at it, mastered it, etc. I too found NaNo was too much when trying to do serious work – and of course it had to be serious! I’m balancing what to me feels like a little when interlectually I know it is more than enough for now. I don’t know how people can write 4 books a year. I find 2000 words a day an amazing achievement, but can’t keep that pace up or I burn out.

    You may have written this so were not alone, but neither are you.

    Thank you for such an honest candid post.

    1. Thanks so much for reading! Judging from the responses on my twitterfeed and in this comments section, we are in really good company! Lots of us writers are recovering perfectionists, ha!

  8. BiblioGeek

    Slow IS perfect. Do you think Michelangelo was worried about pace when he was sculpting David, or painting the Sistine Chapel? No. He concerned himself only with getting it right.
    Look at it this way – all those other people, the ones commenting on twitter or singing the praises of a writing regimen of 7500 words a day – none of them are writing this book. YOUR book. You are writing the third Cahill Witch book perfectly, which no one else in history could ever do.

  9. Pingback : I’m a (Re)Writer | Katy Upperman

  10. I love this post, on both the writing level and the yoga level. I need to get my a$$ back in the yoga studio and I need to start learning not to hate every sentence when I go back and read it. I know the changes I am making in my writing aren't productive. I know this. I'm tinkering, not moving the story forward. Thanks for the reminder that we can spend so much time trying to be perfect that we stagnate.

    1. Oh, the endless tinkering! I'm really familiar with that too. I'm very much into editing as I go, but sometimes it does turn into just fitzing around. For me the program Write or Die has helped – if my internal editor is being particularly relentless, it keeps me writing new words for awhile!

  11. Sarah

    This is such a brave post. – and clearly one that resonates with lots of us! Thank you for having the cahoneys to write it! It makes me feel much less 'out there on my own' to know that lots of other people have the same writing insecurities and difficulties. So much so that it makes them seem much less significant! Thanks again!

  12. This resonates so strongly with me now. I, too, dropped out of NaNo this year because adding word count actually wasn't doing good things for my story. It was hindering my natural editing process, and my system of refining what I have as I go so that I feel good about what I've written and where I'm going.

    It is good to know that the published also feel inadequate with word count sometimes. I guess I've decided that 500 words I'm thrilled with are better than 1k I'm discouraged by.

    Thanks Jessica 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading, Savannah! You are so right – I edit a lot as I go, too, and 500 good words are way better than 1000 that aren't quite right. Everyone's process is different, and I think sometimes that just gets confused by the "more/faster is better" nature of society at large…

  13. tracikenworth

    I think more than a few of us suffer from this. The best thing to do is to ignore a set word count and to just concentrate on writing, scene by scene. Sometimes it'll only yield a few sentences, others more. Each step keeps the process flowing, that's what's important. Progress, not a high amount. Good luck with your writing!!

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