Why writers need to practice generosity

how to fight perfectionism

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Have you ever wondered how to fight perfectionism? I’ve battled it for many years. Let me share my strategy…

Born into a highly competitive family, with a father — a writer — who believed his five children always needed to try a whole lot harder, I felt as if I was engaged in one big rivalry for most of my early life.

If school was a fire, then his you-can-always-do-better attitude acted as a set of bellows. Who had the highest marks in my class? Who was published in the school magazine? Who was editor of the school yearbook? Who won the debates? (My very DNA set me on a course towards the debating club.)

Making matters worse, the work I did in high school and university only cemented these notions. I reviewed books and papers — critiquing their conclusions, their structure, their style. I was encouraged to find flaws or shortcomings in other thinkers’ works. I was taught to scorn classmates who made spelling or grammatical errors.

Then, in my case at least, I went into newspapering: a profession awash with writers who desperately sought to be more acute, more insightful, more adept than their colleagues. Some published books. The rest of us were envious.

Now that I’ve published my own book, I can say with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that being competitive did not help me one iota. If anything, it hurt me, adding at least another six months to the book-writing process. Writing is not about competing, it turns out. It’s about quelling the inner voice of doubt buried deep inside our neocortex.

People often confess to me that they’re “perfectionists,” and that this is their biggest problem with writing. When I was younger, in fact, experts used to say that confessing to being a perfectionist was the ideal answer to the classic job interview question: What’s your biggest fault? After all, who wouldn’t admire a perfectionist? (Don’t try that these days. Perfectionism is now a dirty word.)

The problem with perfectionism is that it seems like an inherent mistake to crush it. After all, who wants to produce less perfect copy? Of course it’s impossible to see that as a good thing. My advice? Forget the perfectionist lingo.

Focus, instead, on reducing your competitive feelings and increasing your generous ones. If you’re not happy with how you’re speaking to yourself then take a quick look at how you speak about others. If someone you know does something that really bugs you, ask yourself why it should affect you so deeply. If you see a piece of writing that you really dislike, instead of badmouthing the author, figure out why you dislike it.

This might take you from, “He’s a really boring writer,” to “I could make my own writing more interesting by including better quotes.” From, “She’s such a braggart,” to “I’ve been missing some chances to promote myself.” From, “They’re so pretentious,” to “How could I be more humble?”

The idea isn’t to become a better person. It’s more about focusing on your own life, on what you want to accomplish. Some people (lucky me, my husband is one) are born with the gene of generosity. They see mostly the good in people. They almost always imagine exemplary motives. They are happy for the success of their friends.

Others of us are born or raised to be less generous and more competitive. Steeped in the art of critiquing should it really surprise us when our own internal editor or shoulder devil starts turning on us? 

So for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to have a generous attitude, naturally, let me spell out the selfish reason for practicing generosity:

If you can be generous with others your nasty, judgmental inner critic will be less harsh with you. The next time you find yourself critiquing your own work, stop for a moment and reflect on what you say about the writing of others. If it’s negative, then break the habit.

As the old saying has it, when you point one finger at someone else, there are always three pointing back at you.

P.S. If you’re writing a book or thesis and want some accountability, consider my Get it done program. Applications for the January to March session close Jan. 2.
How do you deal with perfectionism? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by December 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the inspirational non-fiction book, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

Posted December 16th, 2014 in Power Writing

  • I have learned to identify the difference between perfection and excellence in those circumstances when my perfectionism kicks in. I can then strive for excellence and let go of my perfectionism. Thank you for your insightful thoughts on this topic.

    • I like your point about the difference between perfection and excellence, Lynn.

  • Chris

    I don’t know if I’m there yet. I have always had this perfection streak about my own work, not in regards to others. I want everything I create to be absolutely perfect. If I don’t get it done right the first time, I’m in a bad mood. I want to break this streak to bits. It’s stressing me out and making it hard for me to focus and concentrate.

  • Megan

    I’m usually very concerned with what others think of me/my writing/my work/my hair…
    I try to remember that other people are just like me and probably do the same thing, and probably worry about many of the same things.
    It’s always okay to strive for the best, but when it becomes a destructive process, that is no good.
    I try and understand what others are expecting (and likely will or will note care so much about) and this helps me understand the magnitude of whatever it is I’m being a perfectionist about.

    • Hi Megan, Your addition of the word “hair” in a list including writing and work made me laugh!

  • Tom Morrisey

    Great insight, especially for this time of year. As someone who did book reviews on a local NPR affiliate for years, it slowly dawned on me that my listeners didn’t want to listen to me sneed and sneer — they wanted to hear my recommendations on the relative merits of any particular title.

  • It is not just writers. We teach our children to compete, but not to be generous and then we are surprised by the results.

  • Robyn Conti

    Great lesson, and wonderful sentiments to keep in mind, especially at this time of year. As an editor who works with authors who are investors first, and writers second, this speaks volumes (and is a bit of humble pie, as i was just grumbling to my team about a few less-than-stellar submissions this morning!). Thanks, Daphne. May peace and generosity be with you and yours this holiday season!

  • Clarke Echols

    I was going to say the solution to the problem is to discard perfection, and focus on excellence, but Lynn beat me to it… 🙁 🙂

    A down-side to perfectionism is it fosters and/or gets rooted in pride, which is not a positive trait. Taking pleasure in the satisfaction of accomplishing excellence is entirely appropriate, but to avoid pride, a good approach is to be generous in helping others — especially those less fortunate than you.

    Example: I have provided shelter, food, and clothing for a seriously disabled US Army veteran who suffers from PTSD, degenerative bone disease, and bipolar disorder. In the mid-1970s, he was 14 years old, and driving a tank in the middle of the Vietnam war (his father was dead, and his mother could not raise him so he lived in group foster homes until he went into the army.

    He’s told me that knowing I’d always be there for him has kept him from suicide on numerous occasions. Experiences like that will keep you from getting “too full of yourself”, as you come to realize the responsibility you have to humanity yourself, rather than foisting that obligation off onto government agencies that cannot be relied on to provide it, even though they’re supposed to by agreement years ago.

    Also, never overlook the wisdom that can be found in people you’d think are “nobodies”. When you find yourself gleaning those gems from them,
    it can be truly humbling.

    And don’t overlook the beauties of the earth that our Creator provides. Seek to know of Him and become friends with Him, however your own beliefs enable you to accomplish that.

    Seek to make others around you happy, and get your eyes off of yourself, and new treasures of happiness can be yours on a scale you never dreamed possible.

    Clarke

  • Megan

    That awkward moment when I made a spelling mistake in my previous comment about perfectionism…oh, the irony!
    🙂
    I spelt “not” as “note”.
    Yet, had I take too much time trying to perfect my comment, I might have gotten distracted and not posted it at all!

    • Following up on Lynn’s comment (below), I thought your comment was excellent!

  • Charli Mills

    This is one of the best posts you’ve written, and I read all your posts (newsletter). There’s so much to say about perfectionism, yet I think you’ve gone right to its core and reflected a major issue that casts dark shadows on the writers within the writing industry. I cannot help but think that the bullies on Good Reads or the trolls that seek out authors (especially those emerging) are really just people so stunted by their own perfectionism that they must slay the faults (real or perceived) of others. On the flip-side are the writers so intimidated by their own thoughts of perfectionism that they give up or give in to any kind of criticism. It’s not easy to persevere, to be kind to ourselves and others when were are doubting, or to find our own strengths and voices. Yet we do need to be self-aware, challenge self-improvement and muster courage to share our writing. I’ve created a literary group which is open to any writer who wants to practice craft with weekly flash fiction challenges. We have a prompt and a constraint of 99 words. The idea is that it is short enough to not take us away from other projects, yet allows creative practice weekly. The other intention is that we engage in discourse. Discourse differs from critique in that we share ideas or reflect back what we read without saying, “Hey, you omitted a comma.” Weekly writing, reading and discourse has had a positive impact on our group. We have discussed perfection at different times, but we are able to offer each other encouragement. It shows that generosity among writers does work! Anyone who wants to join us can: carrotranch.com/blog. Look for the Flash Fiction Challenge of the week. Peek in and see what we are doing, how we discourse and you’ll see a generous community of writers. Thank you for your generosity, too, Daphne. I have and will buy any book you write and value your posts.

    • Thanks for posting this, Charli. I think it’s rare to find a writer’s group as supportive as the one you have.

  • Rick Ross

    I always enjoy your newsletters but this is the best one yet.
    We
    were at a wedding on Saturday and had to put up with a guest at our
    table who was not very interesting. Instead of complaining to myself, I
    could have applied your theory and it would have worked.

    • I’ve been in exactly the same situation and fear I haven’t been overly generous myself. Thanks for sharing that, Rick!

  • Lane

    I read your newsletter faithfully and always get something valuable from it. But this week’s gem on how to practice generosity was especially helpful. I am going to apply it personally and share with my kids (I love how it can be generalized and applied to virtually any situation involving judgement of others). Thank you Daphne for being a positive influence. I really do appreciate you and your gracious generosity! Happy Holidays to all!

  • Julie VS

    Working as a graphic designer for small businesses where I wrote and designed a constant stream of layouts for a wide range of projects with tight deadlines cured me of my perfectionism. I created desktop wallpaper for my Mac that says “Prefect is the enemy of done.” (Someone’s spin on Voltaire’s “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”) Perfectionism is paralyzing. You can’t learn anything if you’re afraid of making mistakes. And if you’re expecting perfect from everyone around you, you’ll soon find that’s a very lonely hill to occupy…just you and God. Robert Watson-Watt, who helped develop radar said “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” With the sales tools I’m developing, I have decided I need to get a decent piece in the hands of our sales people and let them tell me how to improve the next version. My idea of perfect won’t be the same as the audience’s idea of perfect. And perfect, at least in my world, is a constantly moving target.

    • LOVE the comment, “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” I’ll remember that for future.

  • Jay Thorwaldson

    Hi Daphne —
    We communicated once before, on a technical matter, I think. But this time I wanted to compliment you on your sensitive and compassionate — and self-compassionate — essay on generosity. At first I thought you might be referring to financial generosity, but most writers I know don’t have a lot of excess $$ to toss around.
    When I got your gist, I was impressed by your insight and clarity of understanding of one of the greatest challenges for writers, especially beginning writers.
    When I was teaching newswriting at Stanford years back in my introductory lecture I would start out by holding up a blank piece of paper, then lead off with a comment that this is not a class in how to write a news story but in how to confront and conquer the scariest thing in America: the blank page.
    When I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly (I retired just under four years ago) we had a young man as an intern who would sit for long times staring at the screen of his computer. He was sitting just in the corner of my vision, and he would kind of slouch back and lay his right forearm across the top of his head, horizontally. As he sat and sat, I couldn’t help but notice as I blasted out stories or editorials or memos.
    Finally, one day — unable to stand one more minute of his inanimate arm — I quietly got up, went over to him and said, “Andrew, type! Don’t just stare. I don’t care what you type, but type out the story and then go back and puzzle on the lead.”
    He got better over the next three months or so. ….
    I really enjoy your essays and comments, and 99.9 percent of the time agree with you.
    Instead of a driving, highly competitive family I had a “critical mother” who would always lace a compliment with some kind of criticism. I think this had the same kind of result, partly from being angry about being criticized. My dad was a great guy and a stockbroker who dreamed of having his on “Thorwaldson and Son” local brokerage, but he died when I was 16 — and I was adopted into a journalism class in high school that had a great former-journalist teacher. I’ve never regretted it, and found that there aren’t many things in life more fun than journalism or more fulfilling than writing.
    But in terms of being generous in the monetary sense, I should have become a stockbroker.
    Keep up the great work! -jay
    Jay Thorwaldson

    • Thanks for your interesting story, Jay. When I was in a newsroom I fear I was one of those vacant writers, staring off into space. (At least I was a super efficient and effective editor!) Good thing I’ve learned to write, since then.

  • Jan

    This is a great article and I am ashamed to admit that I am judgemental to myself and others, not out loud but in my mind. This article really resonated with me. With a bit of effort I can get that little monster off my shoulder.

    • I should have said this, so thanks for bringing up the point, Jan. But the negative talk does NOT have to be voiced out loud to be damaging!

      • Jan

        Thank you Daphne Best Wishes

  • Jim Hayward

    I heard or read a quote once “A work of art is never finished it is abandoned.” Wonder what you think of that.
    A friend of mine who is a perfectionist say all he wants his work to be is adequate. However I think he realizes that is a perfectionists cope out.
    If I was a perfectionist I would not even write a comment.