In Defense of Imperfect Books

by Leesa Freeman
In a conversation with my sister recently, she defended a book that I really didn’t like. While she admitted that this particular book wasn’t great, she kept refuting my arguments that the author had poorly created characters (does she have to be a virgin? Oh, that’s right, because Bella Swan is), no knowledgeable description of the setting (since when is it always sunny in Seattle?), and that people (women) were only getting into it for the sex.

Well maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t, but her point was maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the point is this author had the courage to write a book, get it marketed and published, and turn it into an international phenomenon, despite its (considerable) imperfections and flaws.

Now my Author’s Ego was shouting no, no, no! at that because we authors are told over and over that it must be perfect! No typographical errors, no grammatical mistakes, characters that breathe, plots that twist, settings that vibrate in their own sparkling vibrance, and no wire coat hangers! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I’m not going to dispute any of those, because I do believe a manuscript should be thoughtful and well-written, and that the author should take the time to either do their due diligence in regards to editing and cleanup, or get a trusted friend (and a couple really honest ones) to help them discover the pitfalls, mistakes, and just plain bad writing in any piece before it goes out for public consumption.

But the more I listened, the more I also saw my sister’s point: that oftentimes it’s fear that holds us back. Fear that keeps the next word, paragraph, or chapter off the page; our own inner-critic silences the creative flow and keeps us from moving forward. And on that point I have to agree. For years I made excuses to not write: I didn’t have the time, I didn’t know what to write about, or if I did find the time and the inspiration, just how the heck would I find enough to say about it to write a whole book? But the bottom line was, I was afraid that what I wrote wouldn’t be good enough to read. It would be imperfect.

Even now, those times when I’m in a writing slump, it isn’t that I have nothing to say, but that nothing seems good. My inner-critic will tell me a phrase is too wordy, a paragraph doesn’t have enough action, and just where the heck was I going with that scene, anyway? My inner-critic has the ungodly power at times to convince me I’m doing it all wrong. It’s not perfect.

But is there such a thing as a “perfect” book?

Probably not, and so what? No single book fulfills every perfect ideal, and thank goodness for that. We are social creatures. Creatures that need to be entertained and excited; we need to be challenged, taught, and de-stressed, and since the dawn of communication, that’s what we have done. Told stories around campfires and over radio waves, in books and through film. (And that, by the way, is why books aren’t going anywhere, despite what the fear-mongers and naysayers might have you believe; they are too much a part of Who We Are.)

I’m going to guess that most readers have a favorite, if not an entire list of favorite books, that they love, not for their perfection, but for how those books make them feel. Books that make them laugh, touch them, make them see the world differently, or validate some truth. And while not one of those things has anything to do with perfection, they all speak to courageousness. That author had the courage to be funny, or touching, or truthful.

I will never agree with my sister that that particular book is anything but poor writing, but I have to hand it to the author—she’s ballsy—and for that I give her a certain measure of respect. Do I wish she’d taken a bit more time to edit it, to perfect her craft, to find someone to point out some of the inherent flaws of her manuscript and make it better? Absolutely. But that’s between her and her agent, and they are laughing all the way to the bank.

A native Texan, Leesa Freeman enjoys escaping the chill of New England, if only in her imagination. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. Her first novel, The Wisdom to Know the Difference, was released in 2011. You can learn more about Leesa at her blog, her Facebook page, and on her Author Central page.

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20 thoughts on “In Defense of Imperfect Books”

  1. If we waited until we thought our ms was perfect very few books would ever be published and very few readers would ever have enough to read. It’s knowing when it’s ‘good enough’ that’s the key. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  2. Leesa, this couldn’t have arrived in my email at a better time. We can only strive to do our best, we are human and sometimes we fail to live up to the expectations of others. One opinion is just that–one opinion. It does take balls to put it out there; at that moment we become vulnerable, but at least we showed courage. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  3. Great post, Leesa. Nothing in this world is perfect, least of all humans. And if we authors aren’t perfect (yeah, I know, we all want to think we are), how could we possibly write the perfect book? 🙂 I agree with Yvonne. We do have to know when it’s time to stop–editing, rewriting, adding or subtracting, worrying whether that word is exactly the right one, if we should switch the end of this sentence to the beginning, and realize when it’s ‘good enough’ for others to read.

  4. A good post with well-argued positions. However, I think we should stress that the writer/reader relationship is a pretty straightforward trade: if I read a book and there are glaring problems, whether use of language, continuity, depth of character, lazy research, I’m going to put in as much effort as the writer did, i.e. not a great deal.
    Writers really need to understand this aspect of the craft.

    I have no problem with people writing whatever incomprehensible rubbish they want (it worked for Joyce, after all), but the problems start if you ask strangers for money, with a promise to entertain them. If the writer fails to deliver on that promise, then the writer ends up relying on the reader’s charity, and I don’t think that’s a good way to begin building a fanbase in our capitalist paradise.

    You mention how all readers have a favourite list of books that aren’t “perfect”, which is a good point since “perfection” is so subjective. But when I think about my favourite books, the thing they have in common is the effort and hard work that went into their creation. It helps me to respect the writer, which is half the battle. If, like me, you’ve only been blessed with the bare minimum of ability, then you’ve only got one option: to work really very bloody hard at the craft and learn how it’s done.

    1. I agree with Chris. I’m sorry, Leesa, but I don’t understand your point. I think if one wants to be a writer, one needs to spend time at the craft; effort, time and energy (sweat and toil) is a necessary component. There is a difference between being published and being an author. I’ve seen too many books lately where the writer has let themselves off the hook far too easily.

      1. I agree with both of you and cannot tell you how many books by other writers I have tossed aside because they haven’t learned how to write. I also can’t tell you the number of hours I have sweated blood into my manuscripts to make my writing the very best it can possibly be. But writing is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done because it takes a hell of a lot of courage to figuratively rip all your clothes off and ask the world what it thinks. That, for me, is the scariest part in all of it, and I am constantly reminding myself that perfection does not exist, because if I didn’t, I’d never let anyone read anything I write. It would simply be too scary.
        I’m not saying it’s simply okay to release more drivel into the world – for god’s sake, please do learn your craft, sweat your very essence into it, and then edit the heck out of it. But then honor your own courageousness and release it into the world. Your perceived imperfections and all.

  5. Try as we may–we are human and will make mistakes. Does that mean we should just be sloppy because we have an escuse? OF COURSE, NOT! Addionally, we strive to please our readers, which also cannot be done 100%. Does any of this prevent us from trying or, at least, doing out best to excel? Nope! We just keep on writin’! Onward, McDuff!

  6. Very well said! I, for one, hesitate because I worry that my writing won’t be perfect. Although I realize that it will never be, some small part of me really wants it that way and holds me back. Kudos to those who go forth, guns blazing. I’d rather be a doer than someone who lets fear hold them back, no matter if it’s perfect or not.

  7. Very nice post, Leesa.

    I had a similar argument with my sister over FSOG phenomenon and she basically didn’t care that most of us thought the writing was poor and could have been much better. So was it because my sister and others like her didn’t know the difference or it just didn’t matter? Over and over again, when I first started writing over 20 years ago, the one thing I heard was that most of the population reads at an 8th grade level and I am beginning to wonder if that is still true since the majority of readers of the FSOG trilogy didn’t seem to care it was poorly written…or did they even know?

    I agree we must put our best foot forward in creating something a reader wants to put time and effort into reading, and as an author we shouldn’t let them down.

      1. That is interesting. Are we going back and not forward with our learning? But then again, perhaps we are as I keep seeing how the school system seems to be failing and more and more kids are not learning how to read. So perhaps it is so sadly true.

        1. I think it probably is true. It’s so sad to think that even when the kids fail they move them up to the next grade. How can they possibly learn anything there if they haven’t learned the basics yet? I think someone needs to educate those who are behind the education system.

  8. Good enough is really in the eye of the reader, not the writer – especially other writers. I think we can all point to many best sellers that are poorly written. Write the best book you can and make sure it’s as clean as you can make it, then move on.

    1. My’ good enough’ comment was aimed at writers, who, if they are among those i hear from who are perfectionists (which is most of us here) and don’t see when they are doing something well, keep making adjustments past the point where it improves the outcome. Every artist needs to be able to stop before they make things worse. That decision is not an easy one.

      My remark was, in no way, aimed at those who think they are the next Shakespeare. Those make the rest of us look bad. And, if my guess is correct, the book in question fits very well into THAT category. 🙂

  9. I have been reading a book about the Japanese American experience at Manzanar for the purpose of reviewing it. The the story is fascinating and and the author does an excellent job in conveying the horror and pathos of the situation. Unfortunately, the author’s diction is sloppy and “imaginative” to the point of being malapropic. For example,she uses “intimate” in place of intimidate. The book is poorly edited.
    The book is very much worth reading for the story, but I wish the author had been diligent about diction and editing because the multitude of errors both distract the reader and detract from the experience of reading the book.

  10. Leesa, I applaud the spirit of your post, if not the letter. 😉

    I’m a curmudgeon, I guess, when it comes to reading fiction. Undeveloped characters, poor plotting, grammar and spelling errors all pull me out of the story. I cannot suspend my disbelief. And that ruins the experience of reading for me. I have a friend who has a Ph.D. in history, and who keeps trying to pass on to me books that she considers “light reading” for relaxation after she gets off work. I keep telling her it’s not relaxing for me to read a book that makes me want to hurl it across the room every couple of pages. 😀

    There are certainly writers who delay publishing forever because their work isn’t “perfect.” To those folks, I say, sign up for NaNoWriMo — the tyranny of the daily word count will beat those perfectionistic tendencies out of you in hurry, lol. But there’s a huge gulf between not publishing because of perfectionism and ought-not-to-publish because the book’s a mess. I think FSOG falls into the latter category. And I don’t know what to say about people who like it, except that sometimes there’s no accounting for taste. 😉

  11. I agree to a point; after all, a lot of the best sellers over the past decade have been poorly written, with a weak, wafer thin plot and woeful character development. As you said, about FSOG, all the way to the bank, Leesa, all the way to the bank. So what is the answer? Whatever you can live with I guess, and therein lies the rub!

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