March 1, 2011

When Should a Perfectionist Call Something Done?

Edited page

Yes, I’m still in the deadline cave this week, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Yay!  While I’m hiding, I wanted to share this post I originally wrote last summer.  The lesson is even more relevant to me right now.  (That’s a look at one of my edited pages to the left.  Colorful, isn’t it?)


This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but people have asked me about it, so here goes: I’m not perfect. Yep, it’s true.  Just because I’m a perfectionist does not mean that I am, in fact, perfect.  Far from it to be honest.  It only means that I really, really, really want my work to be close to perfect.

So how many times should I check my work before calling it done?  Is 3 times enough?  5?  10?  50?  100?  Do you sense an OCD issue here?  Hmm, maybe…

How can I, or any perfectionist, know when to call something done and set it loose in the world?  When should we implement our design, set in motion our project plan, or test our new recipe on unsuspecting guests?  When should we publish this blog post for crying out loud?  When is it “good enough”?

That’s a tough question for a perfectionist.  After all, we don’t want something to be good enough—we want it to be perfect.  But no one on this earth is perfect, so that’s an impossible goal.  A compromise has to be found somewhere.

In the real world, that compromise is sometimes forced upon us by deadlines.  But what if there aren’t any deadlines?  What if the call is entirely up to us?

This brings me to one of the big lessons I learned at the RWA National Conference.  The best-selling author Eloisa James gave this advice when asked how she knew when her stories were done:

When all you’re doing is changing your word choices, you’re done.

Okay, what does that mean?  In the world of writing, that means that when the structure of the story is solid, when there aren’t any plot holes, when the story and character arcs are emotionally sound, when the story flows and compels you to turn the page—you’re done.  If all you’re doing is tweaking one little word here or there—stop.  Because that will never end.

The words you choose will change from day-to-day based on your mood.  Focus on the big picture instead.  Is that picture great?  Then be proud of your work and call it done.

Can this lesson be applied outside the world of writing?  I think so.  Have you ever enjoyed the first couple of bites of a dessert and then by the end, it tastes too sweet, too chocolaty, or too something?  Same thing.

Our preferences can change.  It doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the dessert at the beginning.  With a recipe, one day you might decide that it needs 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon, but on another day, a 1/2 teaspoon might hit the spot for your taste buds.

In other words, the tweaking never ends.

So if all you’re doing is tweaking a design that already works, step away from the computer, drafting table, or kitchen counter and force yourself to call it done.

Any fellow perfectionists out there?  How do you know when your work is done?  How do you stop yourself from tweaking things?  Or are you unable to stop?

Comments — What do you think?

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M.E. Anders
M.E. Anders

Jami – I felt that kinship of perfectionism while reading this post. It’s about time for me to cease polishing and jumpstart publishing.

I liked your posted revision, too. Gave me a chuckle…


I hear ya. I think a lot of perfectionists endlessly revise to avoid being found out as “not perfect” after all.<-Hmm, I'm sure that sentence could use some tweaking but this time I'm just going to hit SUBMIT.

Piper Bayard

Thank you! When I’m baking, I know when something is done through long experience, but I’ve never had another perfectionist give me permission to actually call a writing project finished before. I feel absolved for all of the “overs” that should be “aboves” and all of the “chortles” that would be better “laughs.” Ok. Now hitting submit before I start editing my comment.

Laura Pauling

So true. Sometimes at that stage, if we continue to change stuff up to make it perfect we run the risk of losing the original voice that was in the writing. Better to stop a shy too early than burn our ms!


Well, I can certainly relate to this…because you know, I stress out about everything having to be just perfect. *Excuse me while I dodge those lightening bolts* Holy crapatola, he’s throwing balls of fire too! 😉


Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

Great Post Jami! I can completely identify with this. In a few of my first stories I spent days just shifting words and in doing so missed what was truly wrong with the story. I love the back space button, delete and thesaurus hunts far too much. It’s always nice to see that we aren’t alone and as Piper said “I’ve never had another perfectionist give me permission to actually call a writing project finished before”. Thanks.

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Sad/funny post. Okay, I’ll jump right out there and tell you I’m not a perfectionist, but I have to share my world with you guys. BTW, and I the only non-perfectionist writer in the world? Anyway, you’re too hard on yourselves. The trick is to find a non-perfectionist. My wife of 33 years is a perfectionist, as well as my previous boss and current one. What I find is they push me to get it right, whatever the hell that means, and I push them t0 “make a damn decision.” It works beautifully. Where I get into trouble is when I’m working with another non-perfectionist and we get lots done, but maybe not always with the best results. Conversely, if you guys work with another perfectionist, it’ll take you ffffffoooooorrrrrreeeeevvvvvveeeeerrrrrr to get something out there. “Perfectionists and Non-Perfectionists UNITE!!!!! It does us both good.


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I think it’s especially tricky for a perfectionist who’s self publishing. At least with submitting to an agent and/or editor at a traditional house, you know that experienced eyes will make it better. But for writers like me who are making their own paths, where does the tweaking actually end? Word choices can sometimes make a big difference, and if the only thing between my work now and what my readers read is my next draft, then it’s got to be my best ever right? I do have an editor I paid for a developmental edit and they were awesome, but I keep finding things I *need* to change like adding in foreshadowing for book 2, or rewording a line of dialogue to be more mood-appropriate, or whatever. I can’t honestly tell myself that if I’m only changing a word here or there, I’m really done.

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