The Zero Draft and the Spirit of Imperfection

In mid-February I started making new rules for myself to play under. They got expressed as What-ifs: What if I zero-draft with the intention of publishing the piece right away? What if I decide ahead of time that I'll call the piece done once I get past 1,000 words?

So I zero-drafted a bunch of pieces under those rules, but I never did follow through with the intention of publishing right away. 1,000 words of unexpurgated prose? It seemed like a useful idea at first, but soon I recognized that the intention of publishing without an edit got in the way of the expansiveness that is the whole raison d'etre of the zero draft: to be able to use the writing itself to learn what needs to be said. The stumbling, the uncertainty, the space to be wrong: the zero draft welcomes them all. It's a fantastic tool for the writer, but unlikely to carry much value for the average reader.

If I am seeking most of all expansion, then the question of every operating What-if should be: Does this rule aid or detract from expansion?

From that perspective, the choice to not publish immediately was more expansive than its opposite. Knowing that I could and would go back and edit before publication made me a) take more chances in the initial drafting, because I could be as wrong as necessary; b) have more confidence in the ultimate value of the piece, because I knew I had seen it multiple times, had cut out or changed parts that hadn't worked, and so on. Well-earned confidence is inherently expansive.

What I didn't want to do, though, was contract myself through intended expansion. At what point does further editing become a negative? That is, when is a piece done? I've asked that question for years and years and my best answer is that at some point, after you've made all the really obvious improvements, you just decide it's done. What you don't do is wait for it to be perfect. Perfectionism is so fiercely insidious precisely because it so easily masquerades as generosity to the eventual reader: "Look!" it says. "I'm not putting anything out there until it's perfect! You can trust me!" But really perfectionism takes fear--not in itself a bad thing--and makes it into a tool for undermining your own self-trust. There's no perfect piece of writing. At some point you embrace the imperfection as representative of the the essential humanity requisite in the creative act.

Then you let the piece go out into the world, where perhaps it will touch another (also imperfect) human.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *