Write More, Worry Less: How to Beat Perfectionism

You can’t get your query out the door until it’s perfect — but it’s never perfect, so it sits in a drawer where it does no good at all. Or you try again and again to create just the right first line for your novel, and eventually give up in frustration. “Perfectionism keeps us from starting,” says Lisa Earle McLeod, author of Forget Perfect. “If it doesn’t read like a best-seller from the moment our fingers hit the keyboard we get discouraged, and quit.”

Perfectionism can have other negative effects on your writing — and your mood. “Perfectionism can lead writers to spend too much time on their work, writing and rewriting projects,” says Martin Antony, Ph.D., President-Elect of the Canadian Psychological Association and author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping With Perfectionism. “When their high standards are not met, they may respond with feelings of anxiety, depression, or frustration.”

If you, like many writers, have a file full of imperfect queries or a computer folder brimming with not-quite-right book proposals, take heart: There are ways to beat perfectionism for good.

Just start. Write something, anything, to get the juices flowing, says McLeod. It doesn’t matter if it’s crap. It doesn’t matter if you write the same thing over and over again. It doesn’t matter if you start at the beginning, middle, or end. Just get writing, and experience how good it feels to get words down on paper (or in a computer file). You can always edit later.

Start small. “If you really struggle with perfectionism, start with one easy writing assignment,” says Master Certified Life Coach Kristin Taliaferro. “Choose something you can write in a day and then complete it that same day. It will feel great and you’ll start getting hooked on completion versus perfection!” One of Taliaferro’s clients, for example, decided to write and complete a short story each week for a month, even if the story didn’t seem “perfect.” Once she picked up speed, she shifted gears and was able to finally finish writing a book that was in the works (and in her mind) for over a decade.

Scan your thoughts. Identify and change your perfectionistic thinking, says Antony. “Rather than assuming one’s perfectionistic standards are appropriate, examine the evidence for and against perfectionistic beliefs and assumptions and consider other ways of thinking about these situations,” he says. “For example, instead of assuming it would be a disaster to write something that is less than perfect, consider whether your writing is good enough for the intended purpose.” Is it clear? Is it organized? Make those your standards rather than letting yourself be sucked into perfectionist thinking.

Remember there is no perfect. What’s perfect? Whose standards are you trying to live up to: An unknown editor’s, a random reader’s? Everybody has different likes and dislikes and ideas of what’s good, and you can’t please everyone. Just do the best you can and get it out there.

Set a deadline. Taliaferro suggests asking a friend to set a deadline for your writing and call you on the carpet if you miss it. This will challenge you to put words on paper — and not give you enough time to get caught in a perfectionist cycle. When you turn in your assignment, says Taliaferro, ask your friend to offer positive feedback, which will help you gain confidence in your writing.

Get it out there. Keep in mind that an imperfect piece of writing that’s in the hands of an editor or agent is always going to have more success than any writing that’s sitting on your desk awaiting perfection. Diana and I have both sold articles based on queries that had words missing in the every first sentence!

Do you have trouble with perfectionism? How has it affected you? Have you come up with any tactics to defeat it? Please post your experiences in the Comments below! [lf]

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15 comments… add one
  • Jenny Cromie

    This is a great post Linda. As writers and editors we’re trained to be accurate and precise. But if left unchecked, perfectionism can really be a productivity killer.

    I’ve found that setting an alarm for 15 to 30 minutes and writing as much as I can within that timeframe really helps me move beyond that stuck point when my perfectionism is halting my progress. It shuts up my inner critic/editor long enough for the writer to warm up and start moving forward again.


  • Jaimie

    These are really great tips. I like the ideas about setting deadlines and getting positive feedback from a fresh pair of eyes. Thanks for posting & Happy Holidays!

  • Very inspiring post, Linda…and timely for me, too, as I gear up for a few 2009 goals.

  • thanks for this post. Perfectionism is the biggest stumbling block that I allow to get between me and accomplishing anything – from writing an article to cleaning the house. I’m working on it. Now I say “I will work on the living room for 20 min” instead of “I will clean the living room.” If I decide to clean the living room I’ll never be done, so sometimes I wont even start.

  • I agree with lots of these tips and had developed a version of them myself. I even started a group on Inked-In called “Fumbling Toward Discipline” where (the idea was) we’d commit to each other some goal such as 50 page by Tuesday, whatever. Just the act of starting the group, got me working. Others have continued to use the forum for motivation, so ultimately, it served us all well.

    I also have so many projects at once, I usually just start on something else when I’m stuck on the one I should be writing.

    I’m a master procrastinator, if anyone wants help with that, just call. I can do elegant psychologically based justification or pure sloth, and everything in between. Oh and Judy, gotcha covered there too. My house is never cleaner than when a deadline is approaching!

  • Great article. I needed that.

  • Perfectionism is me. And it is so true that never anything gets done. On the outside, I look like a sloppy person with 1001 unfinished projects, while on the inside I always striving for better. I can work every day for hours on just adding that little touch to my blog design, but never really spend time blogging. I can clean one corner of the house with a toothbrush and leave the rest a total mess, because I run out of time.
    But something finally gets done, whoa yeah…

    It is so frustrating, but I learn to live with it. I hope others learn to live with me like this too…

  • Perfect message for me this week as I’ve been trying to do something perfectly, and it hasn’t worked out. I’m letting go of that idea now. Thanks for the reminder. I needed this one.


  • Great post! I just wrote a similar post today. But, this is great insight.

  • That perfectionism refrain me from many of my planned projects and I was thinking about them to leave forever. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and tips. At least I have some courage to start and finish a few of them. Perhaps we have some inner brain thoughts to be perfect in everything but that is not possible.

  • Walt Whitman was discussing the revision process and was asked how he knew when a poem was finally finished. In paraphrase, he said: It’s done when it is sent to the publisher.

    Not: When it’s perfect, I send it to a publisher.

  • At some points I agree to you, obviously a great article written for the writers, but at some point I think when it comes to writing, it just clicks your mind if you have the idea. Otherwise, no matter how much tips you get, how much you tear off your hair, you won’t be able to write a single paragraph on your own, even if you can, you can’t show it to someone else expecting appreciation.

  • Fernando

    I do not know if I have a problem with assuming or perfectionism. Its hard for me too tell. I need help. I kind of have trouble meeting my standards. The good thing is I can handle criticism, and I forgive. I am still happy and friendly,understanding. I am not egotistic. The problem is I keep assuming things that are not true, which is really annoying me and making me discourage. There have been times that I have been critical to my self for not doing a good job, but things have change. I just have been thinking that there is something wrong which isn’t true. I am not sure if I have a problem with perfectionism, because I have a good balance which I can still drive,no anxiety. I have made a few mistakes and I I been feeling like is no big deal. So I am not sure do I have a prol;bem with assuming things or perfectionism?

  • I have always struggled with the act of sitting down and writing and it is for the very same reason I never wrote down the songs I would write as a teenage grunge kid. I have always thought what I produced was pure trash compared to even the most illiterate and ignorant of writers and it has take me most of my life to sit down and just write something. I still don’t feel like I am a very good writer but at least I can sit down and put words to paper.

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