Perfectionism in First Drafts

Woman writing

Are you a perfectionist? If so, this might sound familiar…

You write a page, re-read it, research, tweak, search for that perfect synonym for “look” that doesn’t sound as creepy as “ogle” but not as cliche as “stare.” Something with undertones of longing… and if that word isn’t perfect then the whole page is garbage.

So you spend the next hour fussing over how rough your rough draft is.

See the irony?

When you write your first draft and inspect every word, Google synonyms, and research etymology then you’re never going to finish your novel. And if you do, it’s likely going to read choppy because of how disjointed your writing process is.


It’s not bad that you’re a perfectionist 

Most people tell you that you have to learn to overcome perfectionist compulsions to make it pretty, and just write.

It’s easy to villainize your perfectionist nature because everyone says it’s the death of the first draft.

You don’t have to say “no” to your inner perfectionist, you just have to say “wait.”

It’s a huge difference.

When you have a deeper desire burning within, it’s much easier to say “not now” and be patient.

Don’t victimize your tendencies, empower them. Don’t resist your desire to perfect, just say to yourself, “I can perfect this, but now is not the time.”

There’s something called the second draft. And in that magical land, your inner perfectionist is a mighty hero who can frolic among the prose and critique sentence structures to your heart’s content.


Check your attitude

You have no right to complain about not being successful if you’re not putting in the hard work and hitting your weekly word count but puttering over each paragraph.

If you’ve ever complained that Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey should never have gotten published because they’re trash, remember that Meyer and James had the balls to finish their first drafts.


Work hard

Gary Vaynerchuk is an entrepreneur. He’s a double shot of personality with a chaser of vulgarity. Click here if you want Gary to kick your ass for being a lazy writer. Do not click if you will get offended for someone calling you out on your crap. In fact, if you don’t want people calling you out on your crap, do me a favor and unsubscribe from my blog.

I write this blog to check my own priorities by asking myself the hard questions, and to help you do the same for yourself.


What is a rough draft?

A rough draft is not supposed to be pretty, or even a good representation of your original idea.

A rough draft is supposed to be ugly, barely a shadow of what you envisioned. But, moldable into something that can eventually be pretty.


These will help you practice self control

  1. This application makes it impossible to edit anything while you’re creating your first draft. It was made for perfectionist writers. I just started using it last week and love it. After a session of writing, save it, export it, and paste it in your word document.
  2. You need accountability and encouragement. Write with someone else who will hold you to your goals. Race each other for a word count. If you hit your difficult word count, it’s unlikely you’ll have the time to possessively edit to make it perfect.
  3. This site helps you reach your goals. You need something to lose if you miss your weekly word count. Put money on the line (even if it’s just $1). When you have something to lose, no matter how much, it become more difficult to ignore the task because you don’t want to lose.


Whether you’re a recovering perfectionist or go over the deep end every night, there is hope. You just need self control. And self control comes with time by consistently just doing it without waiting for that elusive motivation.

Disclaimer: I am not in any way suggesting you start vomiting words just to hit your word count. That just creates a huge problem for the second draft because everything is impossibly messy and jumbled. The first draft needs to be true to your characters. You should already have a general idea where your story is going (that can definitely change, as we all know too well).

Question(s) of the day: What’s been holding you back from completing your first draft? How have you dealt with perfectionism?


  1. What’s holding me back from finishing a first draft? My perfectionism in finishing the rewrite on my novel(s). That’s where I run into trouble. Endless rewrites. First draft? Sheesh. I’ve got too many of those.

    • bdschmitt

      August 31, 2015 at 1:43 pm

      I’ve run into a lot of people today who have said very similar things. What have you done to try to overcome that? Has anything worked for you, or is it a bottomless pit of drafts?

      I’m considering blogging about this next week since I’ve heard so many people respond this way.

      • Well, it helps to know what one is doing.

        My first problem: rewriting the first chapter over and over when I need to be looking at the overall structure. But since the former is easier for me than the latter, that’s where I invest my energy. I’m a pantser, so cramming the plot devices into place after the fact is always a challenge.

        Second problem: rearranging scenes endlessly. Oh, this could go on forever.

        Third problem: well, I’ll be blogging about all of this too, sharing my insight on how to effectively spin one’s wheels when rewriting, so that other writers will know they’re not alone in the struggle. Oh…and pointing folks to solutions. Hopefully.

        Look forward to hearing your advice!

        • bdschmitt

          September 1, 2015 at 5:15 pm


          My answer is going to be uncomfortable for you, I guarantee it. If the way you naturally want to edit your draft leads to endless pain, then logically, you’ll have to do something different to see growth which will be very unnatural for you. My suggestion for the pantsers is to plan a bit more. And my suggestion to the planners is to be more of a pantser. There’s something to be said for the happy middle ground.

          Problem 1. Don’t edit wording first. Edit structure first. Then wording once you’re satisfied with the structure.

          Problem 2. Get 100-200 3 by 5 notecards, and number them according to how many scenes (not chapters) you have in your novel. Write ~5 words about what happens in the main plot, and beneath that, write what progresses in the subplot (if any). Write how the character(s) changes as a result of the scene. Once you have ALL the scenes written on notecards, read them in order. Suddenly you see your scenes as changeable, easy to rearrange. That will simplify restructuring considerably by helping you think BIG PICTURE instead of getting caught up with synonyms and sentence structures, even though it will take some time to write out all the scenes. It’s worth it.

          Problem 3. I’m not sure I’m following you on this one, sorry. By “how to effectively spin one’s wheels when rewriting” do you mean think big picture and creatively instead of getting caught up with wording?

          Hope that helps, Diane. And to reiterate, you’re going to have to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation before you see growth in any of these areas. Sucks, I know. But, if you’re willing to put in the work, then these could really help.

          • I’m being sarcastic about spinning one’s wheels. I’m an expert at it. Ha!

            Notecards? Ack, I’m squirming already. But my left brain likes the idea very much.

            You’re right, this is going to be uncomfortable. I like to write, not plan. Same with living. I just want to do stuff, not think about it ahead of time. It carries over onto the page.

            I’m not getting caught up in the words as much as writing a scene in a whole new way. Starting the action at another point in time. Playing around in that way. I supposed it’s a way of drafting again, instead of knuckling down and fixing structure.

            I’ll try your tips. Thanks!

            • bdschmitt

              September 1, 2015 at 7:59 pm

              Ha! Well, as far as writing the scene in a whole new way, you’re right. That is a form of drafting again. You’re right on the money — if you want to finish, you just have to have self control and say “no” to the stuff you want to do at the moment, and try something you’re uncomfortable with.

              Let me know if it works for you!

  2. I’m guilty. I write, then edit, and write some more. I think I’m more of a first draft per chapter person – can’t move on to the next chapter if the previous hasn’t had the kinks worked out. Crazy, I know…

    • bdschmitt

      September 1, 2015 at 9:57 am

      Has it ever happened where around chapter 11, you realize that chapter 5 doesn’t belong anymore and needs to be altered? But since you already put so much work into editing it, now it’s a huge pain to change it. Maybe it’s just me, but that happens quite often. I try to save myself headaches in the end and leave the 2nd draft for the 2nd draft.

      In 2001, Dr. David E. Meyer and his colleagues conducted a study on the levels of productivity when switching between tasks. They found that when tasks are complex (writing and researching are complex) switching between them cost up to 40% of the test subject’s productivity.

      When writing, write. When researching, research. When you mix the two, you’ll be less effective at both.

  3. A few months ago I couldn’t write a second sentence without editing the first one. But now I can write a chapter ignoring the need to rewrite. My next goal – to write the whole book. What I did was just thinking about writing as a hobby, something what makes me happy to spend time on, not a job.

  4. Great post, Ben. The apps you shared look very useful for staying on track and not letting perfectionism deter you from finishing your novel.

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