The Perfection Trap

If you make something, you want it to be perfect, right? That goes for writing, painting, cooking, and just about anything you can apply yourself to. The thing is, if you look closer, it turns out it’s a trap!

Good intentions

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I think a significant part of that pavement is half-finished projects. That first five pages of a book, the first few strokes of a painting, and that nail in the wall where you were going to hang that half-finished cupboard.

At one point or other, we all start projects we never finish. Some of us get distracted, some of us just can’t hack it. Not every unfinished project is because of perfection, of course. I have a friend who starts on something that catches his fancy, buys expensive tools, then stops when it turns out that skill doesn’t come from tools. His house is a graveyard of unfinished projects: from a half-plotted novel stopped at two pages, to pages of notes for a homebrew roleplaying game.

On the other end of the spectrum is those who produce, but are never satisfied. There’s a couple of different forms of this.

Stalled starts

First up, there’s the people who start a novel, write a scene, then rewrite that scene, then do that again. Forever. They keep painting the same thing, over and over, they keep playing the same first few bars of a tune. It’s almost like a stalling engine, chug-chug-chug, puff.

This is a shame. Because, at first, when you do something over, the result does get better, but at some point you run into diminishing returns. Worse, if you only ever write the first scene of a book, you’ll never get to tweaking the overall structure of the novel. Same with a painting, or a music piece, or even house.

Creating things requires a range of different skills. Writing a novel is not just about good scenes, but also about putting together a good overall arc. Building a house is more than laying a foundation. Painting is not just about details, but also about composition.

To the infinite restarters, I say: ‘it’s a trap!’

Let your start be and continue to complete what your working on.

The Hidden Ones

Prince was famous for having a vault of unreleased work. The reason it’s in there: he thought it wasn’t good enough to release. Of course, there’s enough he did release, so the example isn’t that good, perhaps.

The problem some people have is that they feel their work isn’t good enough to share. So they hide it. Paintings, photographs, novels. You name it, somebody is hiding it. And perhaps these works are not perfect… or perhaps they could be the next Harry Potter series. It’s a trap!

Without feedback, you aren’t going to grow. Contrary to what many believe, art does not spring whole and perfect from the creator. That movie where somebody sits down for the first time to write, and then pushes out that world-shattering novel… yeah, that’s bullshit. There’s a learning curve, and learning without useful feedback is slow, if not impossible. Shameful as it may feel, you must share to grow. It turns out, usually friends won’t laugh at you. And if they do, consider getting new friends; your current ones are assholes.

‘More is more perfect’

I had a fellow student when I was at University who had straight A’s (or rather, 10 out of 10 in the Dutch system). If you called him to grab a beer in the weeks leading up to a test, he’d decline — he wouldn’t drink alcohol in any case, actually, but in the run-up to an exam he was at home studying.

Then one day, he defended his master’s thesis. Right before, I walked into the room, saw the big stack of paper that was his thesis and remarked ‘did you print it single-sided?’ He shook his head, and I flipped to the last page which had a number high in the three-hundred range, hard to read with its tiny font. The average thesis was around a hundred or so pages.

During his thesis defense, I couldn’t resist the urge to ask ‘how do you see the forest through the trees?’ I shouldn’t have, because his professor jumped in and started a rant about the subject of brevity, with waving hands. My fellow student was not amused, as you can imagine, but I stand by my question – he still got an A, by the way, and finished with honors. Wait, does that undermine my own point? Still: it’s a trap!

The point is, more is not always better. It can be, but it’s mostly a lot more work, and as I remarked to my fellow student, you cannot see the forest through the trees.


Being a perfectionist takes a lot of time, and doesn’t necessarily yield better results. Often it yields no results.

Of course, you should never rush, but something that’s finished, even if it isn’t perfect, is better than a graveyard of unfinished work.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands