Do you suffer from writing perfectionism?

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Is writing perfectionism something that troubles you? Here’s a list of practical tips to help you vanquish that unruly beast…

Many clients tell me they don’t write because they’re writing perfectionists. They can’t start their writing, they say, because they know it won’t be good enough. As a result, they procrastinate.

Sounds logical, doesn’t it? But with a bit of probing, I usually discover that another emotion is in play — typically, fear.

In fact, when I interviewed procrastination expert Piers Steel — a professor at the University of Calgary — some years ago (the recording and a transcript are available to participants in my Extreme Writing Makeover program, lesson #19), he said that perfectionism is only weakly linked with procrastination.

For procrastinators, the bigger problem is almost always impulsivity — an inability to force themselves to do something difficult when they’d rather be surfing the net, scrolling through Facebook or watching Netflix.

Still, perfectionism may be on the rise. The World Health Organization reports that a record number of young people face depression and anxiety disorders — and some researchers believe these disorders are linked to irrational ideas and expectations —  often, perfectionism.

So, if you’re convinced that perfectionism is wrapping its cold fingers around your neck, I have 11 suggestions for you:

1-Understand that perfectionism is bad for you

Something about the word “perfect” makes us imagine rainbows and unicorns when, in fact, we should be thinking of dragons and thunderstorms.

writing perfectionismFirst, writing perfectionism is bad for your career because trying to get everything “perfect” means that it will take longer to write, and most bosses or supervisors don’t appreciate those kinds of delays. Heck, you probably don’t appreciate those kinds of delays yourself!

Second, writing perfectionism hurts your motivation because it can’t tolerate deviations from a goal.

Third, writing perfectionism is bad for your health. As I said earlier, researchers have linked perfectionistic tendencies with depression, anxiety and self-harm.

Instead, learn to embrace the concept of a growth mindset. This idea, developed by researcher Carol Dweck, holds that each of us can become a better writer (or better anything else) with more practice.

2-Begin by acknowledging your perfectionism

I work with one client who’s a raging perfectionist, and I know he has no idea he is one. He simply believes he has superior standards. And that those standards are necessary.

I’ve been trying to screw up the courage to talk to him about it because confronting this issue would change his life (and business) in an entirely positive way. I’m reluctant, however, because I don’t think he’ll ever be prepared to acknowledge this reality.

Don’t be like him!

If you’re a perfectionist, acknowledge it and start taking steps to address it.

3-Accept that progress is more important than perfect writing

Your work doesn’t have to be perfect, nor does your plan.

As Voltaire put it, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

In terms of writing, the main idea is simply to get started. It may be the hardest work of your life. And you’ll be making mistakes while you do it. But that’s okay.

Content yourself with a crappy first draft. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to make it better later. Keep reminding yourself that you can’t edit a blank page.

4-Set a goal that’s embarrassingly easy

Always start small.

Super small.

Even writing for only five minutes a day can be enough for the first month or two. That way you’ll be able to feel proud and accomplished, and those feelings will buoy you up for your writing the next day, increasing your odds of writing success.

Once you’ve built more effective writing habits for yourself, you can make them more demanding later.

5-Base your goals on output rather than outcome

writing perfectionismNever set yourself a goal like, “I’m going to write a New York Times bestseller.” Why? Because this goal is never within your control!

Other similar goals — such as a specific number of views, sales results, or the number of followers you gain — are also outside of your control. Instead, focus on what you can manage and measure.

For example, you can say you’re going to write a first draft for 15 minutes (or 30 or whatever), every day. Or you can say you’re going to write 250 or 500 or 750 words per day. Those are writing goals within your domain.

Consistency is the enemy of perfection, so instead of reaching for the moon, resolve to hit the stars: make your writing consistent.

6-Prepare for your stress to increase, temporarily

Change is stressful for everyone — even positive change.

As a perfectionist, you’ll expect everything to go perfectly, and you’ll become alarmed when it doesn’t.

Give yourself permission to live with a little bit of extra stress during your next writing session, while you adjust.

7-Realize that an increase in stress might lead to an increase in anxiety

If you have an underlying anxiety disorder, a change in your writing habits or your approach to them might cause anxious feelings to re-emerge.

Be prepared to take whatever steps you need — counselling, CBT, meditation — to keep your anxiety in check. You created your habits over a lifetime. Don’t expect that you can overcome perfectionism — or anxiety — overnight.

8-Watch your self-talk

If a voice in your head is making unhelpful comments — like, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” or “Everything is riding on this” — work to change that toxic script.

Instead, try any of these comments:

  • “I’m doing the best I can; no one could do any more.”
  • “I’ll have plenty of time to improve the writing later, with careful editing.”
  • “My writing skills are improving every day.”

Say these much more helpful comments aloud a couple of times now, just for practice.

9-Experiment with yourself

Test opportunities where you can deliver a piece of writing that is less than perfect.

Start with a low-risk situation, such as a post for your own blog. Instead of aiming to get it “just right,” give yourself a deadline and do the best you can within that time limit.

And in high-risk situations, such as writing a report for your boss, be sure to remind yourself that the world didn’t end the last time you reduced your standards.

10-Ask for help

We can’t do everything on our own, and when we try to, we increase our odds of failing.

If you need help to write, ask family and friends for their support. And if perfectionism is a major issue in your life, seriously consider getting professional help from a counsellor or therapist.

11-Expect those around you to push back

While many people will support the new writing you, some may complain if they feel they’re not getting the attention they’re accustomed to receiving from you.

Remember, they will adjust with time and practice. Don’t give up on the new writing you!

In summary

Becoming a writer is not about talent, as many people believe.

Instead, it’s a job that requires determination, planning and psychological management.

Don’t let perfectionism hold you back.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Oct. 11/16.


My video podcast last week described the best time of day for writing. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


Need some help developing a better, more sustainable writing or editing routine? Learn about my three-month accountability program called Get It Done. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear from me within 24 hours.


Have you ever faced writing perfectionism? How do you deal with it? We can all learn from each other, so please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. If you comment on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/24, I’ll put you in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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