Imaginary perfection

I wrote last week about bad first drafts and why we should do more of them: because getting something out there, however bad, is often the best way of moving forwards with a creative project. I write bad first drafts with a sense of taking one for the team: OK, I’ll be the one who makes myself vulnerable to criticism if it means we can finally get going on this.

There are other excellent reasons to do a bad first draft. I did NaNoWriMo in November 2010 because writing a novel had been on my my Someday/Maybe list for a while and I wanted to give it a go. In my head was a brilliant, gripping novel: a murder mystery set in the 19th century.

NaNoWriMo takes the concept of the bad first draft and runs with it. It frees you from the tyranny of the perfect by making quantity, not quality, the yardstick of success. And “getting it out there” in that context doesn’t even mean exposing your work to the judgment of others; it just means getting it out of your head and onto the page.

But I still found NaNoWriMo to be an uncomfortable experience. The novel I actually began writing was nowhere near as good as the novel in my head. I started November 2010 with a perfect novel in my head and a 50,000-word target. I ended it with 10,000 words of a far-from-perfect novel. The novel in my head remained superior to what I actually wrote in every respect except one: what I wrote actually existed.

Very occasionally, I work for a client who has the perfect copy in their head, just as I had the perfect novel in my head. With most copywriting jobs, each redraft brings you closer to what the client wants. But when they have (literally) indescribable perfection in their head, you never get any closer no matter how many redrafts you do. It’s just a matter of who gives up on who first.