Ways Writers Can Combat Perfectionism

When you worry if what you’re writing will be “good enough,” here are some tips to help your brain change the self-talk:

Don’t wait for conditions to be perfect to get into your writing. Accept that whatever you write will never be perfect. Go for “complete.” Finish a scene or chapter. Let yourself feel the satisfaction of completion even while knowing your writing may need more work.

Instead of focusing on the finished product, try adopting the five steps of design thinking: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to enjoy the journey. “Life is a journey, not a destination.” This is a saying that is hard for perfectionists to embrace. But if you are thinking only of the impossible destination, you won’t experience the joy of the process. You will hate your writing time, and then you’ll ask yourself: Why am I even writing in the first place?

More Coping Strategies for Perfectionism

  • Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect.
    Taking a look at the advantages vs. the disadvantages may help you see problems you may have with relationships, your work habits, eating and/or substance abuse issues, or any other compulsive behaviors and negative emotions. When you look at how those disadvantages outweigh the advantages, that might motivate you to fight the need to be perfect.
  • Pay attention to your perfectionist thoughts.
    When you find yourself criticizing a less-than-perfect bit of writing, make yourself stop and find good parts of your writing. Then ask: Is this really as awful as I think it is? Is it a reasonably good for a first draft or first rewrite? If someone else wrote this, what would you say as honest encouragement to uplift and congratulate the writer? Be your own best friend. God knows we have enough forces trying to tear us down in life.
  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
    By setting more realistic goals, you will come to find that “less than” results do not lead to horrible consequences. Writing that flawed passage is not the end of the world. Find reasons to celebrate the things you’ve improved on.
  • Learn healthy ways to deal with criticism.
    Perfectionists often view criticism as a personal attack, which leads them to respond defensively. Learn to be more objective about criticism and about yourself. Remind yourself that failed attempts help us learn and grow, which helps us improve.

Remember that criticism is a natural thing from which to learn rather than something to be avoided. I wish I’d had honest, helpful criticism decades ago with my first novels.

Mind Hacks for Perfectionists

I like the technique of telling yourself you’re not really going to write that scene; you’re just going to “play around with it.”

Some scenes, to me, are daunting and easy to put off. I struggle with writing climaxes of my novels because I feel “the pressure is on.” It should be on, for my characters, but I get a kind of performance anxiety because I believe everything is riding on creating the perfect climax to my story.

So a hack I’ve used at times (though I’m not a perfectionist by any means) is to tell myself this is just an exercise to get my scene ideas tested. As I shared earlier, I’ll sometimes open a new Word doc and write the scene in there, telling myself it’s really not “an official” scene for my book.

Just doing that frees up my fears of writing a sucky scene. And almost always I end up with a scene that turns out both surprisingly different from the one I thought I’d write and much better than expected. When I copy and paste the scene into my novel, I feel like I’ve cheated somehow, but in a good way.

You can hack around your perfectionism by telling yourself you’re only experimenting.

And you can put your active procrastination to good use. While you’re scrubbing the floor or folding laundry instead of doing the writing you planned to do, you can ideate.

A lot of great writers do this. They problem-solve, imagine scenes, and play around with character types—essentially getting a lot of the necessary work done to pave the way for great writing.

Toni Morrison said she did the hard work of thinking through her scenes while doing chores or other activities, so that when she sat down to write, she was ready to roll. Tony Hillerman likes to lie his couch with his eyes closed.

If perfectionism has you staring at the blank computer screen, that feeling of dread seeping in, preparation can take the edge of it—maybe even get you so excited about what your characters are about to do that you forget you’re demanding perfection from yourself.

And what about asking friends and family to help you break out of perfectionism? Enlist their help. Tell them you are struggling with perfectionism, that you don’t want vacuous accolades spurring you on to write or praising your material. Tell them you’d like them to hold you accountable to getting the work done, to keeping to your writing schedule.

Don’t Wait for the Perfect Moment

I always tell my kids to hurry up and have children. They keep waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect set of circumstances, to start or add to their family. Meanwhile, Grandma is not getting any younger, and she wants to enjoy watching her grandchildren grow.

When my husband and I started our family, we were broke, in school, and unskilled to enter the workforce, but that didn’t stop us (ex-hippies that we were). We think back to those years, and, yes, they were hard at times, but we got by and found great joy in raising our children. If we’d waited for the perfect moment, we’d be childless to this day.

All this to say: there will never be a perfect moment to write. Well, maybe there will, on rare occasion—when all the elements of the universe align just right to allow you to be brilliant and create the perfect scene.

But if you can’t write unless everything is perfect—the environment, the weather, your health, life in general—you’ll never write.

Don’t wait until inspiration lights you up. Ease into your writing. Sit and doodle if you have to. Journal or freewriting on a blank document on your computer. We looked at how freewriting can help inspire our scenes when we take on the voice of our characters and let them speak to us.

Find ways you can break through your need for perfectionism, then put them into practice.

Get into the Habit of Doing instead of Thinking

Many people are great at talking about what they’re going to do but have a world of trouble actually doing those things. They might have to spend hours or days talking themselves into writing before a word is written.

Practice doing things instead of thinking about them. The longer an idea sits in your head without being acted on, the weaker it becomes. After a few days the details get hazy. After a week it’s completely forgotten. If you get an exciting idea and write it down, you may be able to stir up the excitement days later when you review your notes. But chances are much of your idea will have faded along with your enthusiasm.

I like the cliché: strike while the iron is hot (though I don’t really get what it means). But I can picture being heated with a great idea—one I don’t want to cool off before expanding it into a scene element or plot development.

Action helps cure fear. Sitting and mulling allows fear to build up. Getting into action diffuses that fear. Public speakers will tell you the hardest part of speaking is waiting to go on stage. Once they get rolling into their talk, the fear subsides.

Work on Self-Love

The key point is that perfectionism grows from a point of feeling not only imperfect but deeply flawed and therefore unlovable. If you have to constantly re-earn or re-prove your worth—even if it’s to yourself—you are running on a never-ending treadmill of external achievements that will never make you happy.

We need to embrace the fact that self-acceptance and peace do not come from changing what is outside. Remember, lasting change always entails focusing on what’s inside of you. You can never hack your way into self-love. No matter what anyone has said to you and about you in the past, you are a valuable, worthy human being deserving of love and respect. We have to love ourselves before we can love others, and while that can be hard, it’s the way to joy, health, and peace.

4 Responses to “Ways Writers Can Combat Perfectionism”

  1. Billie July 10, 2017 at 10:00 am #

    TMC Transportation has a fleet of shiny black semis with “Destination: Excellence” emblazoned in gold on the back of the cabs. Seeing their trucks never fails to make me smile. They remind me that something can be done perfectly with less than excellent results. I try to carry an attitude of excellence into my writing, realizing that striving for perfection is futile, frustrating, and detrimental. Thank you for an empowering post.

  2. Essie Wharton July 10, 2017 at 11:27 pm #

    What a great, heartfelt post. Very timely. Thank you for posting this!

    We were just talking about not waiting until a “good” day to write, but writing through every days ups and downs, any mood good or bad, all weather… Just like going to the office for a corporate job or school classes everyday regardless of how we’re doing that day.

    So enjoy your thoughtful, wise sharing. Very poignant. We appreciate your contributions to those of us just getting started.

    • cslakin July 12, 2017 at 8:05 pm #

      Thank you so much. I’m so glad to help. I’m all about making writing fiction as approachable and enjoyable as possible!

  3. C.L. Charlesworth July 17, 2017 at 3:36 pm #

    Waiting for the perfect-anything can spoil the moment. I write from my heart. I’m more like the Toni Morrison. I mold a scene in my head while doing chores (I have chores everyday!). The words can be fixed later, but the nuts and bolts are there. For me, getting the ideas down before they float away is everything.

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