Done is Better Than Perfect in Teaching Student Writing

Have you ever heard the motto, “Done is better than perfect?” It’s practically a mantra in some work circles. But the idea today is how embracing “Done is better than perfect” in teaching student writing can help students become better writers.

You may already know that “Done is better than perfect” is a quote from the book by Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In today’s fast paced education environment, is it an attitude we should adopt?

Think about this: Did you ever have a teacher in school who demanded that all the writing you turned in was perfect? How did that affect you?

Are you that teacher?

How Completion Over Perfection Can Make It Harder For Students To Write Well

Students are so afraid of making a mistake that they stress out and never get started.

When teaching writing, our job as teachers is to help students relax and learn to enjoy the writing process. This can be done with daily writing habits or daily writing journals. 


In my classes I used daily writing journals only for writing practice. The students didn’t have to fear getting a bad grade if their writing wasn’t perfect, or even was full of errors. Instead, it was a basis for me to have a mini writing conference with each student and chat with them about what they did well, and one thing they could improve.

By embracing the attitude “done is better than perfect,” in teaching student writing, eventually, for many students “practice made perfect.” But even more important is that it reduced their fear of writing. It was part of our daily habit circles in my classes. The lessons they learned and practiced in their daily writing habits transferred into their writing that was graded. It was always a joy to see their growth.  

Expectations For Writing Skills by Grade Level

You may think I’m diluting the standards and not requiring students to achieve more through rigorous writing. Yet that’s not the case at all. Big gains in learning are made with incremental steps. The Common Core standards are created with incremental increases over each grade level.

Let’s take opinion writing for an example, and look at the Anchor Standard for W.1 across grades 1-5. 

  • “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”

By the time high school students are tackling this standard, they are creating complex opinion pieces on debatable topics. They should have mastery of all of the writing foundations to enable them to produce clear and coherent pieces.

However, in first grade, what should we expect? Typically, a first grader who is not an English Learner, will be able to write a sentence or two stating an opinion and a reason to support the opinion. For example, “I like the books about Pete the Cat. He is funny. He is my favorite character.” If the student is an English Learner, it will look very different, with some grammatical errors. 

In second grade the standards require that students should be advancing toward more complex sentences with transition words such as “because” or “also.” 

In third grade, the opinion piece may still be one paragraph, but it will have more than one reason for support of that opinion, and it should have a clear, cohesive conclusion.

Continuing into fourth grade and following the Common Core standards, students will begin to create multi-paragraph opinion pieces, giving more details in support of their opinions, and including a solid conclusion.

Finally, by the time students are in fifth grade, the writing should reflect more complex language skills and more complex thinking in support of the opinion.

Teaching Writing To English Learners

If you teach in a school with many English Learners, you’ll probably see more grammatical issues with the writing. Depending on their level of language acquisition, students may not be able to define what is a complete sentence, or how to describe the details in support of their opinion. You as the teacher know the level of your students and how much scaffolding they will need. Do they need sentence stems to get started? Or do they need a complete model to use, substituting their own words? Whatever extra supports they need, give it to them. Then, as their language improves, you can provide them with smaller supports.

Should you demand perfect writing? Should you make the student write and edit and rewrite until the paper is flawless? I know some teachers who will correct a student’s paper and then make them rewrite it until it’s perfect. But many times, since the teachers are demanding perfection, the writing is never done. This is a perfect example of a time to embrace the idea that done is better than perfect in teaching student writing.

My Spanish Writing Experience with Done is Better Than Perfect

I’m a lifelong learner, and for the past few years, I’ve been working hard on learning to write well in Spanish. At first, I could barely eke out a few sentences. They were riddled with errors, and my professors would return them with multiple corrections. Usually it seemed as though there were more things wrong than right. We reviewed the corrections together, but never did the professor ever demand that I rewrite it to perfection. For that, I’m incredibly grateful. All that would have done is dishearten me, bore me, and make me dislike the lessons. I believe that demanding writing to perfection from our students can have a similar negative effect. 

Instead of demanding perfection, point out what the student did well. Then point out one thing they can work to improve in their next writing project. This is the strategy I use that I call the Two Color Writing Strategy. It gives the student the hope of doing better. It gives you, the writing teacher, a focus for your next writing conference with the student. I can tell you that my students loved this strategy, because it eliminated the overwhelm. You can download it for free.

Two Color Writing Skills Practice. This checklist gives the teacher a guide to teaching basic skills in writing with a systematic approach.

Eliminate the Overwhelm in Writing

When students know that they have one thing to concentrate on to create their own personal best, they are motivated. If all they see are the editing marks on their paper, it all blends together into one big pot of overwhelm. What do we do when we’re overwhelmed? I don’t know about you, but I procrastinate. I try every distractor I can think of to avoid the seemingly insurmountable task ahead of me. But when I have the presence of mind to break it down into small, manageable steps, I can breathe again. I can tackle the project.

It’s the same for your students. It’s up to you to break it down into those small steps that will lead to big improvement.

How You Can Use This to Help Students To Become Better Writers

It means that you may not ever see that absolutely flawless writing from your students who struggle with language. But you will see improvement and growth in their abilities.

Remember my anecdote about learning to write in Spanish? I never turned in a perfect paper. I still don’t most days. But I can write without fear now. I can write as much as I need to make my point. I’ve grown exponentially in my Spanish writing ability since the beginning when I could barely complete a paragraph.

The same is true of your students. Done is better than perfect means that they’ll be writing every day. They’ll be turning in more writing assignments. They’ll be proud of their work and their accomplishments. 

It might not be perfect, but it will be done. Finishing a writing piece brings a certain sense of satisfaction. Feeling that satisfaction will bring the motivation to do it again. That’s how you help a student learn to write.

So by way of wrapping up, this is how you can use the motto, “Done is better than perfect” in teaching student writing. 

  1. Focus on only one writing skill at a time.
  2. Set your expectations to the level at which you know your students can achieve.
  3. Encourage them to get it done!
  4. When you go over the writing with them, use the Two Color Strategy

The motto will allow you to help students to become better writers.

Mistakes are the portals of discovery quote James Joyce

Your Turn!

What are your thoughts on this? Do you value completion over perfection, or do you think otherwise? Leave a comment so we can share our thoughts.

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