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]