Imperfection for Writers: Good? Bad? Challenging?


imperfection in writing and discarded pages

Imperfection sounds bad. Yet I know all about the dangers of perfectionism. But somehow, when it comes to my writing, I never quite believe them.

It feels too easy, like part of that “everyone gets a prize” approach which I deeply mistrust. The sort of thing that makes teachers say, “Ermintrude is too easily satisfied.”

Not rigorous enough.

And then I came across a perfect justification for imperfection and it wasn’t by a counsellor or psychotherapist, but by Robert Watson-Watt, who supplied the RAF with radar in time to give them the crucial edge in the Battle of Britain.

His cult of the imperfect was: “Give them the third-best to go on with; the second-best comes too late, [and] the best never comes.”

Positive Imperfection for Writers

Imperfection for writers certainly delivers on timing too.

The law of diminishing returns seems to set in around the third draft. By the time you get to Draft 40 (and yes, I’ve been there) you’re spending three days to change a couple of paragraphs.

But imperfection actually adds something positive, does something more than just improve the time:effort:outcome ratio.

It breathes life into what we’re writing. It makes it flicker and cast shadows and move from two dimensions to three. Fact or fiction, it makes no difference.

Tangents, uncompleted ideas, even mistakes are part of the world. As in the world, so in the compelling narrative.

The Imperfect Mr Levin

A passionate opera lover, Levin wrote a collection of essays about various festivals. Even if you hate the stuff, I invite you to read an extract from one such, now permanently lodged on the website of his alma mater, the London School of Economics. It is only part of the essay on Wexford which is, in its entirety, yes, too long, maybe a bit shapeless, but well worth seeking out. It’s so full of life that you feel you have been for a walk with a man whose company is pure champagne. Enjoy!

The Imperfect Novelist

A Civil Contract by Georgette HeyerAll the good ones. Tolstoy (whom I like), Thomas Hardy (whom I don’t), Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, even my dear P G Wodehouse all have their longueurs when they start to ride their hobby horses. (Beware PGW on golf.) George Eliot, truly catty about blonde, pretty Rosamund Vincy: “she never thought of money except as something necessary which other people would always provide.” Georgette Heyer spraying exclamation marks around like pepper on pizza and not allowing Adam to fall properly in love with plump, practical Jenny!

Too many to choose from. But they all have that vital spark of life happening on the page. Boring bits, unsatisfying relationships, only serve to underline how strong that flame is.

So I’m going to end with a quotation that sort of sums up my own feelings about the divine qualities of Imperfection.

It is from The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson, page 192-3.

Anna, a Russian Countess in exile, has been housemaid in a grand house where the heir is about to marry and his new bride is going to banish Great Uncle Sebastien to an isolated wing under the care of jailer-nurses.

“If you will play with me?” Uncle Sebastien said cunningly. “I have the Schubert duets. What about the Fantasia in F?”

“Ah yes!” Her face was suddenly transfigured. “But I cannot play with you. It is impossible!”

“Not Selina Strickland, I hope. Because– ­”

“No.” She sighed. “I shall be gone so soon that it doesn’t matter, I think. But you are a professional.

In silence, Uncle Sebastien held out his hands, bent and swollen with rheumatism and age.

“Yes, you are right,” said Anna quietly. “God understands these things. Come.”

And so they played some of the world’s loveliest piano music – the exiled, homesick girl, the humilated, tired old man. Not properly. Better than that.

14 thoughts on “Imperfection for Writers: Good? Bad? Challenging?

  1. katyhaye

    Oh, Eva Ibbotson was one of the most wonderful, humane writers I’ve ever come across. Just this extract made me blink back tears. Thank you!

  2. Sophie Post author

    I know, Kate. It goes straight to the heart, doesn’t it? Humane is exactly the right word for her!

    1. janegordoncumming

      Talking of imperfections, A Civil Contract is the only GH I never reread because I found it so sad. Am I wrong? Should I give it another go?

      And I’m afraid I had to put down a Jeeves compilation the other day, because they were so repetitive and obviously pot boilers. One disadvantage to being a prolific writer is the difficulty of being a perfect prolific writer.

      1. Sophie Post author

        I think PGW sometimes forgot what he had used before, Jane. I do that, too. But then I do a search and sure enough, there it is.

        But I forgive him everything for the Hallowed Lunacy of the Market Snodsbury Grammar School Prize Giving. “Gussie tacked to the front of the stage.” If I’d written that, I would die a happy woman.

    2. Sophie Post author

      Go for it, Lesley. I thought I was just going to find the quotation and then put the book back on the shelf. But ended up re-reading it from cover to cover. Bliss.

  3. Joanna

    So true that “the best is the enemy of the good”, or words to that effect. The hunt for perfection in writing can often be destroying of our originality, never mind horribly time-consuming. But how do we stop ourselves? How do we teach ourselves to say “Enough!”

    On another topic, Sophie, I must thank you for pointing me in the direction of Bernard Levin’s lemon juice. Wonderful writing and brilliantly funny. I was wiping away tears as I read. To anyone who hasn’t yet read it, I recommend it unreservedly. But be prepared for mirth…

    1. Sophie Post author

      So glad you enjoyed it. Every time I read it, I say to myself, “I know what’s coming. I won’t laugh out loud.” But every time I crack up and end with aching ribs. Great stuff.

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    What a touching extract. Really summed up your post. Yes, it’s hard to stop tinkering and say, OK, this will do now. Especially when invariably you find something that won’t do later on well after publication. There’s this urge to make it the very best it can possibly be.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh, I’m with you every step of the way, Liz. I have this inner voice, sounding very like my father, saying “You’re so careless. Check again.” Quite apart from the eternal suspicion that what I’ve written just isn’t good enough.

      But 40 drafts? Has the poor book any life left in it at all, I ask. And I’ve done it to myself!

      Still I’m sure you’re much too sensible to go as far as 40.

  5. Georgie Wickham

    The Eva Ibbotson quotation had me in tears. So did the Bernard Levin piece – brilliant.

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