Perfection. It’s a state of being for which many of us strive, and sadly too many of us expect of ourselves. This Achilles heel applies to almost any field, but for writers it can interfere in the process of producing and publishing work that deserves to be read. Perfectionism affects a wide array of writers, and it can become paralyzing if it gets out of control. If you can learn how to harness it, however, perfectionism can actually be an asset. The trick is to realize that it’s just like any other facet of our personalities: when you embrace it and harness it, you can achieve wildly; when you allow it to run your career or hobby into the ground, it holds your achievements hostage.
When Perfectionism Gets the Best of You
There you are, sitting at the computer with the blinking cursor ticking time like a metronome. Several minutes pass while you dither about the perfect way to start your new novel. Dialogue or description? Action or passing thought? Flashback or future prediction? The options are seemingly endless, and the longer you sit, the harder it gets to type. You get up and wander, thinking maybe moving will help. The sun is shining, and it calls you outdoors. Yard work ensues. The garage suddenly requires cleaning. Maybe it’s time for a sale, get rid of some old junk. Oh, the ways we talk ourselves out of writing.
First, let’s look at what thoughts are going through your head. What things do you tell yourself when you sit down to write? Do you try to whip yourself into submission with guilt? Do you allow your thoughts to wander aimlessly in avoidance? What exactly are the messages you tell yourself when it’s time to honor your craft? If you aren’t sure, you could try writing about it. Yes, seriously. You’re already a writer, so this should come naturally. I’m no fool, though. I know it might be a struggle.
Get a sheet of paper or notebook and a pen or pencil (or even a crayon if you like), and write at the top of the page: Things I Tell Myself When I Am Trying to Write. Set a timer for five minutes. When you’re ready, put your pen to the paper and write without stopping for the full five minutes, avoiding any editing, crossing out, or concern about spelling or grammar errors. Mistakes are fine, and you need to leave them alone. No one else needs to read this. You can write as badly as you want, and I promise the universe will not implode. The key is to keep the pen moving the whole time, without thinking. Just write down whatever comes into your head. If you get off topic, gently encourage yourself back to the topic by being silly with yourself (this is not about self-flagellation). Everything will be okay. I promise.
When you finish the session, read what you wrote. Does anything stand out? Do you see any patterns, thoughts, or emotions revealed, or did you spend the whole session avoiding the topic? If the latter, do another session. Keep trying until your brain barfs out the truth. It will try to evade you, but you must persist. It’s the only way to root out the insidious internal dialogue that is preventing you from writing. When you finally have an answer, you can stare down the monsters in your mind by replacing that negative messaging with a different message…the opposite message.
What do I mean by that, you ask? Well, if you’ve discovered that the messages you tell yourself have to do with expecting to be able to write a perfect first sentence before you can move on, then you must tell yourself the opposite. You don’t actually need a perfect first sentence right away. If you must, you can start in the middle, or at the end. Craft the part of the story that has already formed in your head. Who says you have to start at the beginning?
This is your story, and no one is going to care where you start as long as you eventually finish the whole thing. Is your internal dialogue wrapped up in providing details you can’t dream up yet? Again, you don’t need to have the whole story figured out before you start. It’s okay to begin without knowing where it’s going. There’s plenty of time to work on the perfect phrasing later, or to figure out what makes the perfect opening sentence; sometimes we need to flesh out part of the story before the best opening paragraph reveals itself.
Whatever your negative messages are, you must figure out what they are saying so you can counteract them with the truth. Messages like “I’m a terrible writer” or “This is the wrong word to use, and I can’t move on until I find the perfect phrase” are simply excuses to derail your success. Stop giving them power. Get to work and allow yourself to enjoy what you do.
The Truth about Perfection
What is perfection, really? Does anyone ever attain it? If we’re honest about it, the answer is no. When we do anything, regardless of how well we have mastered a skill, we are always practicing. Even when a major publishing house rewards you with a high-paying contract and flies you around the world, you’re still a practicing writer. No work, no matter how wonderful, is ever perfect. Stop waiting for perfection to get started, to get published, or to craft your next project. Perfectionism will only drag you down and make you miserable.
True perfection, in my opinion, is embracing the imperfection of our work and saying it’s the best I can do right now. In a few years you may look back on what you wrote and think it’s awful, but that’s a sign of progress. Progress is growth, and it means you’ve continued to practice. This is a good thing. Hug your mistakes to you and be thankful you can say you’ve moved on to better things. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you should publish work that isn’t finished or isn’t your best. I’m saying do your best, and then be willing to accept it probably isn’t perfect. What’s great is that even if it’s not perfect, whatever you’re writing is exactly what someone else in the world needs to hear right now.
How to Make Perfectionism Work for You
Once you understand the nature of your perfectionism, you can actually make it work in your favor. Perfectionism, when left to its own devices, can run rampant. I sometimes wonder if this is what happened to certain writers who wrote a wonderful masterpiece, and then dropped back into a shroud of mystery. Perhaps perfectionism stopped them from writing another novel, because they were afraid the next novel wouldn’t be as good. They feared not being able to live up to the same level of greatness. For many writers, this is a reality.
We all write books or stories that will be received better than others. Sometimes we only write one great book in our lives. Does that mean we should stop writing because we might not live up to our past achievements? That seems selfish. You are a writer. Your contribution to the world is your writing. Why deny others the pleasure of what you have to share?
Instead, why not accept that some of your writing is going to be like a homerun, and other stories will be more like singles or doubles (or maybe even just foul balls or outs). If you let those worries stop you from writing, you’ll never find out the true nature of how much you can achieve. Fear should not be driving your writing vehicle. Perfectionism is a form of fear getting out of control, but you can harness it if you identify how it hinders you.
For instance, I am a rampant perfectionist. My messaging tended to be that I wasn’t making any money at my writing, so I shouldn’t waste my time on it. This is hogwash. Truth be told, I’m still not really making money on my writing, but that doesn’t mean it has no worth. When people read my stories, I have a lot of readers give me wonderful compliments about what they experienced as a result of reading one of my books. Is that not a reward? I think it is. Would I like to be able to live on my writing? Sure, but until then I can still write and share my work so others can enjoy it. Eventually if I am resourceful enough and deserve the attention from readers, my work might be able to support me one day. I decided to counteract my negative messaging with the positive message that my writing can be rewarding without monetary gain. And it’s the truth. Writing is when I feel most myself. Why should I deny myself that part of who I am?
As a result of my changed messaging, I now utilize my perfectionism as fuel to stick to my writing schedule. It works very well for me now, because I am a diligent little soldier when it comes to getting things done. Thus, my perfectionism becomes a positive means for me to keep writing, instead of it becoming a road block. What can you do to turn your perfectionism into an asset which helps move you forward? If it’s stopping you before you even start, counteract it to allow you to write around your inspiration. If it’s preventing you from sending your work to publishers or to publish it yourself, you can utilize it to help you create a schedule to write query letters or to work on prepping your manuscript for publish.
Do yourself a favor and give yourself permission to be your best self as a writer. Allow your work to take precedence over the garage sales and yard work (I mean, within reason). We all have responsibilities, but I think we adults all know the difference between avoiding and being responsible. I’m not telling you to avoid cooking dinner so you can write a book, unless you know holding off on cooking dinner will motivate you to write first with dinner as the reward. Only you know what you’re thinking and what will work as a motivator to get you going again. No matter what, if you’re a writer, you should be writing. All your practice will inevitably turn into better products, and trust that you will keep growing. Become unstoppable. Make your perfectionism work for you, rather than allowing it to hold you back.