Are you really a perfectionist?

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

This piece is all about writing perfectionism. Will it surprise you to learn that I don’t think that’s your real problem?

My family of origin — mother, father, brother, sisters — and my current family — husband and children — all know me to be a perfectionist.

When I clean a room, I vacuum underneath furniture. When I invite people to dinner, we are never short of food. When I organize events, I have lists, backup plans and a schedule timed to the minute. I’m not saying this to brag — I was just born this way. (And, as you can imagine, this attribute is considered highly dysfunctional by many of the more easy-going members of my family. Sorry, dear ones!)

But when it comes to writing, I’m able to let go of any perfectionist tendencies and just get the words on the page. When I speak with clients, many of them like to tell me they think they might be perfectionists. I used to accept this evaluation as either helpful knowledge or a warning. Now, however, I’ve learned to question it a little more deeply. 

So, the next time you think you’re dealing with writing perfectionism, consider the following issues: 

Does your “perfectionism” stop you from writing?

If it does, the real issue may be that you’re not allowing enough time in your schedule to think about what you want to write before you start to write it. Many of us are really busy people — with jobs, kids, aging parents or spouses — and we have difficulty squeezing in the time to write. Alternatively, if our writing problem is at the office, we may have an unsupportive boss, gnarly coworkers or way too much email to be able to write fluently.

These psychological and time-related issues actually have little to do with perfectionism. Nor will they be solved by calling the problem perfectionism. Instead, you need to clear the time in your schedule for writing, get more support from your family or boss, and stop checking your email so often. I’m not saying this is easy. It just has little to do with perfectionism.

Does your “perfectionism” slow you down when you’re writing?

This is the most common problem facing my clients: they write a sentence, reread it and edit it immediately. Some of them go only one small step better: they write for 15 to 30 minutes and then edit it all right away. While this may look like perfectionism, I usually find it’s either impatience or just a really bad habit. The business of editing-while-you-write is highly seductive. Most of us developed this habit while in school — accustomed to receiving papers filled with little red markings from teachers we wanted to submit work that was as excellent as possible. (Doesn’t it always seemed faster to fix mistakes right away?) I’d call this perfectionism-by-proxy: we wanted to please our teachers, and thereby our parents.

I know some professional writers who still write this way but I’m convinced they take years off their life by doing so. Instead, try this: work to overcome the habit of editing while you write. It’s not a character flaw, it’s just a habit. And with some determination you can train yourself out of it. Here’s a list of the techniques I used to train myself:

  • Covered my monitor with a towel while I wrote (so I couldn’t see my words)
  • Practiced using the no-charge website from Dr. Wicked
  • Wrote using a timer ticking in the background
  • Developed the habit of putting notes in my stories of facts to check later (e.g. spelling of names)

Sadly, the process of writing first and editing later is seldom taught in school. Teachers usually focus on the end product — the paper or essay. If you want to write faster, and with less pain, don’t focus on the product when you’re writing (that’s a job for later, when you’re editing.) And, most of all don’t call yourself a “perfectionist,” instead, work on breaking the editing-while-you-write habit.

Does your “perfectionism” make editing too challenging?

I find this concern is largely expressed by the academics I work with. Here is an email I received recently from one of my academic clients (who’s given me permission to share it here.)

I can write a text fairly quickly, but I struggle to get to the finished product because I edit, re-edit, and edit again.  I get too tempted by the impulse to say it in a better way, add another dimension, and just start again on a new track.  Even my emails, I usually re-read and re-edit (as I am doing now!), sometimes several times for the sheer enjoyment of composing a nice paragraph or turning a good phrase. It works splendidly for writing poems, but not so much for books or dissertations! 

But what I have been learning about the editing process lately is not to get so hung-up on how I say things (focus more on what is being said); focus more on the structure and organization of the text before the wording of its ideas (here the outline is helpful); and, overall, just be more damn accepting of what I have written (but it is hard when you are trading with a community that is trained to do the opposite). 

My client hit the nail on the head with the phrase “a community trained to do the opposite.” Academics face an almost unbearable pressure to produce “unique,” “important,” and “perfect” work. As a result, many of them struggle to get a single sentence on the page without feeling distraught. And, even if they can train themselves to write without editing, the editing process itself becomes too daunting. This is not perfectionism! This is a perfectly understandable — if dysfunctional — response to the demands of academic life.

If you’re an academic who is struggling to get words out the door, I have three suggestions for you:

  • Make sure you’ve turned writing into a habit — something you do every day without too much thought and concern.
  • Find some supportive colleagues who can review your work honestly and incisively, thereby giving you the reassurance you need.
  • Remind yourself that not every paper you write (not even a dissertation!) needs to be an A+++ effort. There is far more value in being published frequently than being published rarely. And you will learn more — and grow as a writer — with each publication.

Perfectionism is a beguiling word with “perfect” at the root. Who doesn’t want to be perfect? But, giving yourself a label — even a pretty one — doesn’t help one iota, unless you know how to change your behaviour. 

If you’ve ever been inclined to call yourself a perfectionist, I suggest you take a deeper look at your writing habit before you accept the epithet.

Do you ever describe yourself as a writing perfectionist?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of the novel Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.