Challenge,  On Writing

The Threat of Perfect

The Voice Does It Again…

I think almost every coach and a few of the guest coaches on The Voice have told a singer in one way or another that perfect is a bad thing.

Wow, we were stopping the show the last few days every time a coach said that and we gave up after five or six stops just this week alone.

I know most of you reading this will just shake your head and go away and wonder why we are watching a reality show like The Voice. The reason is that we learn a ton from it every season. We learn about drive, about technique, and about how really dangerous perfection can be to an art.

And many of you would learn from the show as well if you got your noses out of the air and opened your ears and actually listened as if it was a major writer talking to you every time one of the coaches talked.

Now I am not saying that a writer shouldn’t do the very best they can every time. But perfect grammar and all that does not make a good story. In fact, that search for perfection through a ton of rewriting and reworking makes your stories dull and lifeless and voiceless.

Those new singers are there to learn from the top in their field, so they are all hungry for knowledge. And often a coach in a battle will say the choice will come down to who takes their notes and applies them the best. And often that note is to kill the perfection and put themselves into a song.

Be yourself, let it go, rough it up some to put some of your personality in the work. Make your work original to you.

Over the years I have said that more times here in more ways than I can count about writing, but after watching The Voice once again tonight I figured why not one more time. Why not?

So you can shake your head and walk away with the knowledge now that you are superior to me and Kris because you don’t watch that crap.

And we’ll just keep learning.

And that desire to keep learning from every place we can learn from is why we are still here and writing and making a living with our writing after 40 years.



  • Annemarie Nikolaus

    There’s a fight that I often have with translators of my books. They want to translate with the perfect grammar – as they learnt to do, of course. “You may not begin an English sentence with ”that’.” don’t matter that it’s a line of dialogue and real people don’t follow grammar rules, when they are upset or in danger or in love … And for the sake of correct grammar they change the focus in a sentence and thus its meaning for the story. It takes so much time to explain and ask them to rework that I’m more and more tempted to take it over for the languages I know myself. Would that count as writing the next book? I wonder.

  • Kessie

    It’s funny, there’s this tidal shift in thinking happening in the indie community right now. The noobs have burned out, and the experienced authors are beginning to say the same things you do–don’t worry about perfection. Use a few adverbs. Write what you love. People are seeing that the books they slaved over with editing and rewrites don’t sell, whereas books they just tossed out there raw and wriggling sell like hotcakes. I know a guy who worked for years on his sci fi series, never got many sales or recognition. Then he dashed out a Legend of Zelda fanfic and it won an award on Wattpad. He was astounded.

    • dwsmith

      Kessie, but he won’t learn from that experience because the myths are just too deep. Even a person’s own experience of letting their own voice be there won’t change the myth in their minds. I’m afraid I was one of those. Sold my first two short stories, one draft, raw, then spent seven years following the rewriting and polishing myths and not selling a thing, then went back to Heinlein’s Rules and stunningly made a career. So don’t expect the myths to vanish just because a person has an experience. They will consider it a fluke. And that is why there are so very few of us long-term professionals and so many want-to-be writers with a rewritten to mush book. They myths are just too strong. Even having the coaches on The Voice repeat it over and over doesn’t get through.

      • Angie

        He’ll probably decide that the fanfic readers are used to reading “trash” and therefore have lousy taste, and use that as a reason to discount the wild popularity of a story he just banged out. [smirk]


    • dwsmith

      And can someone please explain to me in some clear way that my old brain will understand where all this stupidity about not using adverbs came from???

      • Kessie

        As far as I can gather, it’s from Stephen King’s On Writing. He says to eliminate as many adverbs as you can … and then goes on to use adverbs. This advice has evolved into NEVER USE ADVERBS EVER. Same with Show Don’t Tell being used to strip every ounce of exposition and inner monologue from a manuscript. Grr.

        • Janine

          I fell for the “show, don’t tell” trap for a while, leading to awkward writing for a while. So called experts said what was telling and I found a lot of it in stories, so I asked “what’s the point”? I recently decided that as long as my writing is clear and I’m telling a good story, does it matter if I’m telling. Too much showing can slow down your pace. Unlike most of my writing colleagues, I think info dumping can be done well if the story doesn’t grind to a halt. Besides, removing exposition and inner monologue turns your story into a script.

        • dwsmith

          Yeah, I knew about King’s silliness of telling new writers to do something he himself doesn’t do. All in an attempt to help I am sure. But that advice was around long before King rolled out his English Teacher creds and got silly by not actually describing how he writes, but instead how he things others should write. Sigh.

          Strunk and White is much earlier than King and again an example of EB White saying something in the book that he didn’t do in his own writing.

          But I think it was even before then. I’ll keep digging.

      • Edward M. Grant

        I think it was Stephen King, or at least he’s the most well-known example of a writer telling other writers not to use adverbs.

        That said, it’s a rule he doesn’t actually follow. At least, not that much.

        I suspect he just meant it in the sense that he typically prefers to use a more specific word than modify a generic one with adverbs, but the idea somehow took off and became a religion in some parts. ‘He used an adverb! Kill the heretic!’

          • Tina Back

            Elmore Leonard’s advice might have gotten mixed in there as well, even though it’s limited in scope: Never use an adverb to modify a “said”.

            I love his 10 rules book. Few words and fabulous illustrations. Maybe one I’ll try a few of them 😉

      • Indiana Jim

        Dean the “use no adverbs” comes from the “show don’t tell” adage. So don’t write: ‘“Don’t do that,” Bob said angrily,”’ you write some action that SHOWS Bob being angry.

  • Janine

    One thing I’ve learned over the past year especially is that perfection is subjective. When you change your style in order to fit someone else’s idea of perfection, you dive into big trouble. Especially when it comes to those English majors that spend years writing that ‘great novel’ and try to lecture everyone else in how to write a novel ‘correctly’. I was told my writing style wasn’t *writerly* enough, and that if I was to get anywhere, I had to change my style to be lyrical, when I’m not a big fan of reading lyrical prose (I think a lot of it is stuffy, my voice veers towards the straightforward style). One of those types gave me a complaint that my writing style was unacceptable and I was stunned; it’s similar to one seen in a very popular book series that gets quite a bit of praise. I make sure my writing is clear and if they don’t understand after that, oh well.

    Don’t get me started at how “show, don’t tell” can be abused to give us bogged down stories and writers forcing themselves to become lyrical or something else that they are not. Elegant prose can only help so much.

    • dwsmith

      Actually, elegant prose, as you were saying, is often deadly. What beginners and non-writers think as elegant is mostly fluffy crap done for an audience of five. So my opinion those folks in English departments wouldn’t know elegant prose if it bit them. But wow will they tell you otherwise at the top of their lungs. (grin)

  • Gai

    “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”

    ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

    • Alexandra

      I’d always rather have a yard full of happy, lively weeds than a boring green grass carpet that gets brown if you give it a drop too much or a drop too little water. But as with everything – YMMV. It would just be so very, very boring if everybody’s style was the exact same.

      • Janine

        Yes. I’m see the most policing of the *correct writing style* from writing boards and English degree holders. You see, my writing style is similar to a popular Young Adult novel series (I’m currently writing YA), and while some like it, the English majors don’t like it, they say it’s no good. It’s almost like certain writing styles are superior to others for them, and they disguise it with sayings like “show, don’t tell”, which favor lyrical styles, and other methods to get you to obey a generic style. But I found out that the *correct writing style* isn’t me and seems like the public doesn’t care as much. Writing boards tend to fester groupthink a lot of the time unfortunately.

        • LInda Maye Adams

          I suspect some of that is impostor syndrome combined with the words are precious. The writer can feel very superior lecturing another writers about “The Rules” and think, well, he’s following all the checklists and this other person needs to be educated.

    • Maree

      This has to be King playing a joke right? I mean the dandelion analogy is too on the nose. It’s fairly common knowledge that the modern obsession with smooth lawns made up of one single species was a way of showing your neighbors that you had the time and money to waste cultivating an entirely useless crop. Dandelions aren’t weeds. They’re good livestock feed. And unlike most lawn grasses they’re also edible by humans.

      What I’m hearing is that getting rid of all the adverbs is like eradicating lots of useful plants because of aesthetics.

    • Kristine Kathryn Rusch

      Totally, completely, profigately. Anyone else notice that? (And King is my one of my favorites…)

      • Kate Pavelle

        In that case I’ll write the way I “yarden.” I don’t have weeds, I have biodiversity. And my dandelions smile quite prettily, thank you very much! (I have that book by King. It’s not bad, but it’s like any other advice. YMMV.)

  • Marsha

    The great thing about not striving to attain the elusive perfect is how absolutely freeing that is. It eliminates so much stress and puts the fun back into the process.

    • Janine

      Agreed. I gave my complete rewrite to a couple of first readers last week, and while I was nervous the first few hours, I felt more confident in my story than I did in the time in myth land. I gave it my best effort and had fun writing it, not worried about making it perfect or writerly. After getting their feedback, I’ll take a look and determine what changes to make (if any), then it’s off to line editing and it’s getting published.

      Writing is only hard when you make it so, I believe. When you let the self doubt creep in and strive for perfection, it is hard.

      • dwsmith

        Janine, I hate to ask this but why don’t you have enough confidence in your work to just let it go to proofing and into publication? Why two first readers? Why not just trust your own voice?

        As I said, I hate to ask that, but there it is. (grin)

  • Philip

    I can’t count the EXCELLENT novels and shorts stories I’ve read that:

    1. Use a bunch of adverbs.


    2. Do a heck of a lot of “telling.”

    But, ya know, those are just best-selling, much-loved novels. Nothing to see there.

    Even in the so-called world of “literary fiction,” there are dozens of writers who are admired BECAUSE they broke all the rules. Yet the “experts” tell us we don’t dare be as bold as they were because we’re not good enough. Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, even Hemingway (he wrote too minimalist, they said). All greats because they had guts.

  • Rikki Mongoose

    Its secret stictly hidden by critics – there’re a lot of great novels had style that becames better in trepanslation.

    Hush hush, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had broken, messed up style. Gogol, Zamyatin, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn wrote in “spoken language”, not literary one.

    I’m not sure about French literature, but as I know, Simenon was famous with his “newspaper” style, totally not French literary one.

    • Céline Malgen

      Yes, but Simenon was a crime writer, something that would be looked down upon by the literary establishment. He was very prolific, basically a French-speaking pulp writer. So not a literary writer. French-speaking literary writers would usually use some very flowery language, in order to show that they’re intellectuals, not part of the masses.

  • Tony DeCastro

    Every time I hear one of my fellow writers spout the “don’t use a lot of adverbs” or some other “rule”. I tell that writer to dig out one of their favorite novels, and see what that writer does. Inevitably, they come back and say something like, “You know, J.K Rowling uses adverbs. I’m going to stop sweating it so much.”
    So much of what we CAN learn about writing, can be found by simply returning to study the stories that we have loved. (I suppose I could learn a lot from books I hate, too, but that doesn’t seem like fun).

    • Maree

      I think the first time this hit me in the head was when I was reading a book and I was totally immersed. And then ‘suddenly’.

      Not just an adverb. The most evil telling abverb! I’d read plenty of trash talk on it. And yet here I was reading it in a book those trash talkers loved?

      I realized they had an essential disconnect between reading and writing. And I’ve been annoyed by fake advice ever since.

      • Janine

        Same. It’s like they want you to write in one style only, and dismiss you from writing any other style. It’s what caused me to write in this odd fake lyrical style that doesn’t sound like me, but it’s that “serious writing voice” that Kris talks about. I wonder if they also recommend reading a bunch of writing advice blogs instead of reading books. I noticed that those workshopped books seem to have this sameness about it. After I started reading more and wrote closer to myself, I enjoyed what I wrote.

  • Bea

    I’ve never, ever heard anyone say, “Show me a story.” Not from my two daughters when they were young, nor from anyone else. It’s always been, “Tell me a story.”

  • Phillip McCollum

    I sometimes wonder if all of those advice-giving authors aren’t just having some fun at the expense of would-be-writers that don’t actually read. Because, if you read, you’d see how much of the advice is pure hokum. At least that’s something I discovered when I spent more time studying novels and less time studying books on how to write novels. 🙂

    • Janine

      I had a simular revelation after I started to pick up more books and stopped depending on writing advice articles. I felt more confident in my own writing style, that I didn’t have to change it to the accepted type. I always notice that in some places, they suggest writing advice articles to improve your writing instead of saying, reading more. Why do I have to follow the rules and be stale when these great books break the rules? Writing is a creative art, not bound by rules.

  • Anthony

    What ?!
    “Avoid adverbs” and “show rather than say” are also myths !
    I do not believe it !
    I spend a lot of time during my cycles to change words or sentences to make adverbs disappear and to show without saying because King and others have said that it is what must be done !
    Good news finally ! It will save me a lot of time !