When Ben Franklin was in his 20s, he embarked on what he called “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He made a list of the virtues he wanted to practice and then set about keeping score. He marked out every instance of a violation of a virtue every day. There were several every day.
I tracked performance for more than fifty years. I never had a perfect day. I bet your experience is like mine. Perfection eludes us. It’s not because we’re evil, weak, or undisciplined. It’s because we’re human and humans make mistakes.
That’s one important reason why “All first drafts are crap.” No matter how good we think it is or want it to be, that first draft is only a step on the way to what it can become.
Great Writing Is Rewriting, But Not Just Once
Many writing sages have said this: “Great writing is rewriting.” It’s more than that.
Great writing is iterative. It’s going over the same material again and again seeking new ways to improve it. It’s correcting what needs correcting, then doing it again. When my clients write their books, they usually go through three or four complete drafts. They may rewrite individual chapters many more times, sometimes a dozen or two dozen times. I revised this post five times.
When Should You Stop?
There are two times to stop rewriting. The first is if you are changing the manuscript but not improving it. When your changes aren’t making your piece more understandable or easier to read, it’s time to stop.
The other time you stop revising is when you hit your deadline. Then, it’s time to declare your work done and send off your piece or publish it. When this happens to you, you’re not actually done with the piece, you’ve just run out of time to work on it.
No matter what kind of “done” you experience, your piece won’t be perfect.
Why Try for Perfection?
If perfection is impossible, why should you even try? The answer to that one is way above my pay grade, so I’ll defer to the esteemed American philosopher, Vincent Thomas Lombardi.
“We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process, we will catch excellence.”
Perfection eludes us because we’re human.
Great writing is rewriting over and over.
Stop when you’re making it different, but not better.
Stop when you hit the deadline and it’s time to release your work.
You chase perfection to catch excellence.