Dear Teen Writer: Avoid the Perils of Perfection -- A WOW Wednesday Post by Diana Renn
I recently came across a homecoming picture from my sophomore year of high school. I’m wearing a blue dress with voluminous bows on the shoulders and silver shoes. (Forgive me. It was the eighties). My hair cascades over my shoulder in hair-sprayed curls. My hands, placed on my date’s arm, display press-on nails.
I spent a lot of my teen years trying to achieve a certain impossible standard for myself, from homework to homecoming photos. Perfectionist tendencies also impacted my writing life. It took me a long time to see that truth.
Prior to high school, I had always seen myself as a writer. I churned out illustrated stories as a child, I went to young authors conferences, I wrote two novels. I penned plays and poems, skits and songs. I filled up diaries. Writing was my joy and my escape. I received personal satisfaction as well as external validation.
Something shifted around eighth grade and persisted into high school. It wasn’t any one event, just a growing sense of unease, or fatigue, with all the attention I’d been getting for my writing. It made me self-conscious. And I felt judged and evaluated at every turn. Just walking down the hall felt precarious. How could I see a story through from beginning to end? How could I line up words, one after another? I became overly interested in what readers—mostly my teachers—might think. I wrote stylishly but with no substance. Then I wrote almost nothing at all. I became discouraged when what I put on paper did not match what I had in my mind. I went silent on the page for a while, writing school assignments and little else.
And then I came to a math class – yes, math class -- where I found my writing voice again. I know, right? Weird. But here’s how it happened.
Through seating chart karma, I met a kindred spirit: a girl beside me who also, secretly, liked to write. Our undetected note-passing in the back of the room evolved into joint story writing. We co-wrote romance stories and then a romance novel, passing a three-ring binder back and forth under desks. I began to look forward to math class to get my next reading installment, and to add my own chapter. The binder filled up.
For the first time, I enjoyed taking risks on the page -- I’d never written a romance before, nor had I written with a partner. And I learned so much about writing fiction as we worked on our stories. The scenes had to move along; there was no backtracking, rethinking, or ripping out of plotlines, since we wrote in short bursts of time. And I had to keep my reader-slash-coauthor interested in the story so she could build on what I’d done.
I admit, that experience wasn’t great for my GPA (I got a D in math), and I don’t necessarily recommend it. But it was an excellent move for my writing career. Because soon after, I began sharing with some trusted teachers the fact that I liked to write stories. I began taking more risks in my written academic work too. Then a teacher encouraged me to go to a writing retreat.
At an old military fort on the Washington Coast, I spent three days hunkered down with other teen writers. We attended workshops. We wrote poetry on walls. We talked about writing and favorite books. It was all fun, until the workshop leaders, professional authors, asked us to share our work aloud. Work we had just written in the workshops! I panicked. Share writing I’d just written? For more than one reader? For strangers? No! I wanted to make it perfect. To take it to the hair salon, and the makeup counter. But there wasn’t time.
Revision is a good thing. I’m a huge reviser. But writing imperfectly is also a good thing, and that’s what you need to do at the draft stage. You need to stop worrying about how people will take it, and just get it out on the page. Otherwise you run the risk of having nothing at all to revise. And after you do that? You begin to reintroduce audience awareness, but gradually. Take the risk of sharing less-than-perfect work with a trusted reader. Even if it’s just one person.
These days, taking risks on the page and sharing imperfect work is part of my job. I send rough partial drafts to my critique partner to get a sense of what’s working (or not) and what’s interesting (or not). That part feels like the collaborative writing I did with my friend in math class, because usually she’s working on something at the same time, and we’re swapping pages almost daily. It’s a little scary, but mostly it’s exhilarating. I know this friend will never judge me, and my desire not to bore her keeps me churning out page after page.
After I have a complete draft of a book, I send it to my editor, still imperfect but better. We go through several rounds of revision together. At some point, the Sales and Marketing team reads the book – sometimes before I’m ready, and I feel I’ve been caught at the door in my bathrobe. There are imperfections at every stage of the process. But I’ve come to love this enchanted time of imperfection when words and ideas feel so malleable, early readers can respond, and I get another chance to make the work better. This is how I continue to grow as a writer.
So here’s what I wish I could go back and tell my teen writer self:
- Don’t strive for perfection. Let the press-on nails fall where they will. Remember that beautiful and interesting things can come out of a mess.
- Take risks on the page. Experiment! Write in different genres, different voices, different styles. You will expand your range as a writer that way.
- Share your imperfect work! Find friends you can share or swap drafts with, or even write with. Maybe what you show them isn’t even finished. A writing buddy or a group can give you the encouragement you need to go on.
About the Author:
TOKYO HEIST (2012), LATITUDE ZERO (2014) and BLUE VOYAGE (coming October 2015), all published by Viking/Penguin. She is also the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network), an award-winning online magazine featuring short-form writing for teens. Diana grew up in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and son. You can find her online at www.dianarennbooks.com, follow her on Twitter (@dianarenn) or interact with her on Facebook! (https://www.facebook.com/DianaRenn)
About the Book:
LATITUDE ZERO, published by Viking Children's Books / Penguin Young Readers Group
“I have to run,” said Juan Carlos. “You will call? Please? It is very important.”
“Yes. I will call. Definitely. At two.”
Amazon | Goodreads | Indiebound
And look for her upcoming book BLUE VOYAGE on Goodreads!
-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers