How to deal with perfectionism and writing

perfectionism and writing

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

For some people perfectionism and writing go together like salt and pepper or a hammer and nails— you don’t have one without the other. Here’s some advice on how to fix that….

I injured my arm while making Hollandaise sauce, about six weeks ago.  It took me a while to figure out I had a repetitive strain injury. Ugh. I spend almost all of my working life at a keyboard. And when I’m not working I’m either walking (ok), reading (turning pages hurt), cooking (ouch!) or playing piano (I had to cancel my lessons.)

Perfectionism should be the furthest thing from my mind right now. But after taking a full month off from working on my book, I’ve found I’m reluctant to resume. It’s not so much the pain in my arm, which is slowly easing. It’s more my concern that what I’m writing is not any good. Could that be perfectionism speaking?

I was born such a raging perfectionist that my husband still teases me about it. I think it came from a confluence of my own natural tendencies, aggravated by my father’s ultra-competitive scolding. (“Did anyone in your class get higher marks than you?” was my childhood theme song.) I’ve worked to relax over the years and, my husband’s comments notwithstanding, appear to have mellowed. In fact, judging by my score on this perfectionism test, if I were any less perfectionistic now I might, in fact, be dead.

Still, my reluctance to resume my book spurred me to do some research on perfectionism. If you feel perfectionism keeps you from writing, here are seven strategies to adopt:

1)   Get started with just five minutes: I’ve written before about the magic of five minutes and I continue to believe it’s a magic bullet for writers. Who doesn’t have five minutes? And who doesn’t know that starting a project is always the hardest part? Break through resistance by promising to spend five measly minutes writing — what do you have to lose? In fact, that’s how I’m going to get started on my book again. At the time I had to quit I was working 30 minutes a day on it. I know it will take me some “conditioning” to get back up to that length of time — and I’m perfectly okay with that.

2)   Separate the process from the product: The act of writing (the process) is far more important than what you are writing (the product) — whether it’s an article, a website or a book.  Focus on the process. The product is something you needn’t even think about until much further down the road.

3)   Don’t conflate worthiness with achievement: You are worthy, whatever you decide to do. Writing, laying bricks, lawyering — these are essentially hobbies in the face of our real life’s work: looking after family, friends and ourselves. You may choose to write but that doesn’t make you a better person. It just makes you a person who writes.

4)   Allow Encourage a crappy first draft: I’ve coached many writers who are terrified of their first draft. They express disbelief when I tell them that no one else needs to see it. But a crappy first draft allows you to put your words on the page without terror. Then — and only then — you can move words around, add material and delete. Repeat after me: no one needs to see your first draft. No one. It is personal and private. Write crap. Edit it later.

5)   Set a time limit: Beginning with five minutes is good but you also need to know your end point. Don’t allow yourself to write for limitless hours, even if you’re ultra-enthusiastic about your project. Here are five excellent reasons why limiting your writing time is just as important as starting it.

6)   Forgive yourself: So your first draft wasn’t as good as you’d hoped. That happens to every writer — even apparently perfect ones like Alice Munro, who initially didn’t tell her own mother she was writing stories. Remember: the only big failure is failing to write.

7)   Reflect on your shortcomings and your successes: We all have strengths and weaknesses and if we’re able to recognize them, we’re able to grow as writers.  Celebrate your strengths, (which might be the power to write great dialogue, smooth transitions, or explain the complex in simple language) and minimize your weaknesses, whatever they are. Writers get better only by practicing.

Don’t allow yourself to stop; don’t be afraid to start.

Do you struggle with perfectionism? What do you do about it? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by May 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the intriguing non-fiction book Start with Why by Simon Sinek. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end. 

Posted June 10th, 2014 in Power Writing

  • Meredith Roark Childress

    I love this encouraging blog, Daphne! And I want to encourage you to work on your book because–if I understood you correctly–it’s something to do with food! There’s no way it won’t be good and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m sorry you’ve hurt your wrist and really hope it’s much better soon.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Meredith. I resumed work on my book just this week and think I am managing to keep perfectionism at bay!

  • Last weekend I was on a retreat of sorts and decided to re-read some of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I remember feeling startled when I read what she had to say about perfectionism (pg 119). “Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right…” “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsessive debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing …and lose sight of the whole.” WOW! Similar to your advice Daphne, she advises that we should ‘create freely and allow errors to reveal themselves later as insights’, I love that! She said perfectionists are never satisfied. In the end, she says that a normal part of creativity is letting go (and moving on to the next thing). She ends with “We always do the best that we can by the light we have to see by.” I love metaphors and will keep this one in mind as I practice my own letting go. Thanks Daphne. Hope your wrist gets better.

    • I also appreciate the phrase, ‘create freely and allow errors to reveal themselves later as insights.’ Wow! Really well put. By the way, have you read Julia Cameron’s other book — The Right to Write? I find it much more useful that The Artist’s Way.

      • I haven’t read The Right to Write… but I’ll definitely look for it. Thanks Daphne.

  • Tracy Isaacs

    Short spurts of writing (like 5-30 minutes) and permission to write a bad first draft are the two most liberating practices in my writing life! Thanks for this great reminder of these two essential tools! Hope your wrist doesn’t give you any more trouble.

    • Thanks, Tracy. My wrist is slowly getting better. Am off to have some acupuncture tomorrow and hope that gives me the final push to recovery!

  • Rain

    I love what you wrote about our “real life’s work,” which is looking after family, friends and ourselves. I wish someone had told me that when I was 18. After all, no matter what I try to accomplish, that’s been mainly what my life’s work has been!

    • It took me an awfully long time to learn this, and I don’t think I would have believed anyone who told me this when I was 18. You are probably the same in this regard!

  • Taran

    Your columns are always helpful, but this one was particularly so. It just happens to be where I’m stuck right now. And thanks much for the Test Link.

  • PM

    Here’s a question for you, Daphne. How do you fall out of love with your own writing? I find the biggest challenge in writing is being willing to delete a particular turn of phrase or sentence structure that I think is just spiffy. I fall in love and it can be very hard to tell that phrase or sentence that we must break up.

    • I think the best way to “fall out of love” with your writing is to have some distance from it. You need at least a day and even longer is more effective. When you have this distance you can become a much better, more neutral editor of your own work. Does that help?

  • Della Smith

    Great post Daphne. Love the perfectionist test. Always wise words from you. Appreciate it!

    • So glad you enjoyed the perfectionism & writing column. I really liked the test! It reassured me a lot!

  • Nancy

    Daphne, the perfect timing of your posts never cease to amaze me. Perfectionism is a real problem for me, and you’re right, getting started is the hardest part. Thank you for your advice and support.

  • Rosie

    Sorry, I don’t understand the #2…could you elaborate a little more please 🙂
    My two cents: I write a lot…in private work notebooks…but I can’t write a blog. When I write for myself, no perfectionism is showing his nose up. But, when I plan to write a post, perfectionism is taking control of my whole self.
    A few days ago, I had to write essays for a master degree application. I had a deadline. I was able to write without perfectionism showing up! So I was thinking: hum, could it be that I need external imposed deadline to overcome my writing block? Then I heard Michael Lewis (Poker Liars, Moneyball, The Big Short, Flash Boys) said that to put his butt in a chair, after a daywork at Salomon Brothers, he managed to generate article demand from magazines…so he had deadlines to meet!
    As far I’m concerned, I think that I need SHORT deadlines

    PS: I like your blog posts 🙂

    • Rosie, You’ve described exactly what I’m talking about: You can write in private without perfectionism but when you go to write a post you hit a wall (I have no idea why you were able to write the essay for a masters degree without perfectionism, but congrats on that!) The main thing is not so much the deadlines. Instead, it’s not letting yourself THINK about who is going to read what you’re writing. Don’t worry about the final product WHILE you are writing it. Don’t worry about doing a good job. Don’t worry about what your editor or readers are going to think. Just write! Does that make sense to you?