The Help Desk: Perfection is overrated

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

This is not strictly a NaNoWriMo question, but maybe it will apply to some of the folks writing their novels this month: When I'm writing fiction, I can't let go of a sentence until it's perfect. I'm physically unable to move on and fix something in edits. It sometimes takes me a month to write a paragraph. And it's always a spectacular paragraph, if I do say so myself. But at this pace, I'm not going to finish my first novel until I'm 68, and I'd rather not do my first book tour as a retiree. Any tips on moving past the imperfect to get to the good?

Needs Perfection, Woodinville

Dear Needs Perfection,

I have the same problem when I'm penning therapeutic revenge limericks about my enemies – although in my defense, it is extremely difficult to capture the insult of a friend stealing Les Schwab tire coupons from your home in anapestic meter, especially when that friend's name is Verdiana. What the fuck rhymes with Verdiana? Nothing, that's what.

We are in a rut, you and I. A rut that in my case was caused by driving on bald tires (Verdiana, you cow). You can't let go of a paragraph until it's "perfect" and I can't let go of a limerick until it ends with someone being metaphorically beaten with a tire iron in perfect rhyme.

What we both need is a change of approach. I'm assuming you typically write on a computer – try writing with pen and paper instead. I've found that it's harder to fixate on words on a page because editing them is such a messy process. Writing on paper feels like more of a first draft; our brains have been conditioned through years of school to know that writing by hand is both spontaneous and incomplete.

Here's another trick that will put your obsessive perfectionist tendencies to better use: Work on creating a detailed outline of your entire book instead of creating perfect paragraphs. You must realize that much will be cut in the editing process, so why waste your time ensuring they're perfect now? Get the structure in place and then spend your time filling in the details.

As for me, likely I will have to give up on my limerick and resort to an old-fashioned form of revenge: stripping Verdiana's car of everything of value and donating the pieces to Jalopy Jungle. Perhaps after that, I can find it in my heart to send her an "I forgive you" limerick, instead:

You stole my coupons, you cow

An insult I cannot allow

In lieu of wishing you dead

I stripped your Ford Taurus instead

Great news: I forgive you now.