The Perfect Trap: How to Deal with Perfectionism in Writing

Rachel Richey Letters From The Editor

It’s go time. Time to write that perfect blog post/short story/novel that’s going to get you noticed. You’ve done all the research and you know all of the points that you want to address. This should be easy, but as you get stuck rewriting your first sentence for the 10th time, the panic starts to creep in. Your piece is going nowhere fast and you’re running out of time and ideas. What happened?

You’ve fallen into a common trap for writers. The pressure to create something perfect can prevent you from creating anything at all.

Perfectionism can bring about the death of any writing project. I’ve struggled with it my entire life. And even though I didn’t always have a word for it, I could feel it lurking in the background every time I would put off writing my school papers, or when I would rewrite a single paragraph over a dozen times before being able to move forward with an article. Or worse yet, when I would give up on a story completely because it wasn’t exactly “right”.

I’ve always envied writers who could whip out a rough draft without breaking a sweat. My rough drafts had to be final drafts. And this slowed me down. Nobody would ever call me prolific. But, since I’ve always met my deadlines (more or less) I never saw it as a problem that needed fixing, until recently.

Inspired by the thousands of brave writers who participate in NaNoWriMo–who choose to write quickly and imperfectly–I begin to wonder if  I could improve my writing and my speed by writing more drafts. This would mean that  I would have to give up my perfectionist ways. So I decided to find out more about perfectionism and how it effects the writing process.

Basically perfectionism comes from fear. Fear of failure, fear of disapproval, fear of making a mistake. In writing this can translate to feeling that if your work isn’t perfect, then it’s not worth being read.

Scary thought, huh? Especially when you’re first starting out. Writing is an intimate task. You are putting a piece of yourself on the page and if someone rejects it, then it can feel like they’re rejecting you. It’s easy to see how this fear could stifle your creativity. How can you feel free to express yourself if you’re terrified of being judged?

Have no fear of perfection–you’ll never reach it.Salvador Dali
Unfortunately, if you’re a writer, you will be judged, sometimes negatively. You can’t change that. But you can manage the fear that causes your perfectionist tendencies. Here a few suggestions that I’ve come across that have helped me.

  • Practice- You can’t gain confidence in your writing if you never write. The more you tackle each project and learn how to express your ideas effectively the more confidence you will have in yourself and your abilities.
  • Free write- I found a great article on Twitter the other day that deals with this exact subject. When you write quickly and continuously you are able to get your thoughts past your inner perfectionist and onto the page. You can always go back and revise but the important thing is to get your ideas on paper.
  • Lighten up- This is hard to do, but you need to remember why you started writing in the first place. It should be fun, right? You should enjoy the challenge and not be terrified of it. If you feel stuck while working on an important piece, then maybe you should switch gears and work on something that’s less stressful. Jot down a funny story or a journal entry. This can help you relax and regain your confidence.
  • Focus on the process-Keep your mind on the problem in front of you and take it one step at a time. Focusing on the whole project can make you feel overwhelmed and stressed out.
  • Learn form your mistakes, don’t dwell on them– It’s okay to fail. I don’t think we hear this enough, so I’ll say it agin, it’s okay to fail. The world is not going to end. In fact, sometimes this is the best way to learn. So anytime you make a mistake try to focus on the knowledge you’ve gained in the process.
  • Share your work-Show a friend, join a writing group, or enter a contest. When you put your work out there for the world to see, then you realize that it’s not as scary as you thought it would be. Even if you receive some negative feedback, chances are most of it will be constructive. You learn what works and what doesn’t, so that you can grow and become a better writer.

Even following these steps, I can’t say I’m entirely cured of my perfectionist ways, but it’s a start. Someday I might even be able to write a whole draft of an article without fixing those squiggly red lines that indicate a spelling error. But until then, I’m going to keep practicing.

Do you suffer from perfectionism? Got any tips that have helped you in the past? Let us know!

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About the Author

Rachel Richey

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As an avid reader and a lover of story crafting, Rachel started as a way to motivate and connect authors to tell their stories (and the literary community at large). Her favorite part of Literative is discovering the talent that shows up in our creative writing contests.