Dealing With Perfectionism As A Writer

Bismuth Perfection

The biggest problem of every perfectionist is that even things which are supposed to be fun, things which should fill us with joy and free our spirit, can become a chore. We can’t do stuff without worrying how well we’re doing, how useful it is, or how much it matters. We’re always trying to outsmart ourselves and others, and frequently forget to have fun along the way. And if we try to deal with this problem the way normal people do, we only end up making it worse.

What do normal people do when they don’t get the results they want? They apply pressure to themselves. If perfectionists try to follow the same route, piling external pressure on top of the pressure we always feel within, we drain ourselves and decrease our productivity.

When it comes to writing, we perfectionists do much better if we’re able to focus on one thing at a time, and invest our energy hunting for perfection—or at least piece of mind—in that one area.

When we write a manuscript, we should focus only on that, let our creativity flow freely and not try to also mind aspects that have nothing to do with that first stage of creation, like style and wordchoice, readability and marketability. When we revise and edit a manuscript, we should focus on one step at a time, first on plot and characters, then on setting, then on grammar, etc. Trying to do them all at once won’t allow us to reach the level of quality we demand of ourselves and it will leave us disappointed. And when it comes to blogging and networking, we must set clear boundaries—what do we want to achieve and how much are we willing to invest—and not try to do it all and do it perfectly. We can’t. No one can, but perfectionists still demand this of themselves. It’s a vice.

Multitasking is a modern myth. No human can truly multitask. What a multitasker does is actually switch really fast from one task to another and then back again. The energy expended in each project is much smaller than for non-multitaskers, not to mention the energy expended in the switch and keeping track of both task developments is lost. We could gain speed, but achieve lower quality. As perfectionists we aren’t interested in speed as much as quality, so multitasking is a bad idea.

Trying to write something new, while revising an old project, while trying to maintain an active public presence at the same time? AND taking care of family, job and household? That’s racing right down the Highway to Burn-Out.

Yes, there are people who can manage it all. It’s only a matter of efficient time management and discipline. And yes, perfectionists can do that too, but we don’t enjoy it. We start to hate our lives, and feel completely inadequate and out of tune with ourselves. We can’t enjoy doing things on the run, working a little over here, then a little over there, never quite finishing anything before switching to the next thing, never quite able to tell if we’ve done good or just wasted energy.

Perfectionists need a different kind of self-management. We have different definitions of what a “finished project” means, of what a “good job” is and how we can get there the fastest. We use different parameters and measurements to determine if we’re on the right track. It’s not enough to know we’re “working on something” at any given moment. We need much stricter prioritization, and we need the balls to make it clear to others that we’ll only follow OUR priorities, the way we know we work best, and not their way.

It’s not easy being a perfectionist.

Let me revise that—it sucks. It’s not desirable or “fancy” at all. Think real perfectionism is a synonym for exigence and excellence? Yeah… replace that with masochism.

Being unable to enjoy doing something without grading the result is not fun. Being unable to forgive oneself for making even tiny mistakes is not fun. Being unable to move on unless a project is beaten to death is really not fun. And on top of that, we’re experts at giving ourselves a guilty conscience over almost anything. Just make your pick, we’d be able to feel bad about how we’re doing it in ten minutes.

But what can we do?

Therapy is expensive, and we’d only constantly wonder if the therapist is as capable as his diploma says he is, and if the method he’s chosen is really working. (Yup, we’re a pain in the ass sometimes.)

Cognitive behavioral therapy suggests that perfectionism is best kept at bay through the constant reassurance that it’s OK to be imperfect, it’s OK to fail now and then, and it’s OK to take things slowly and one at a time. It’s also OK to just have fun with things without expecting any productive result. It’s OK to slack now and then, and it’s OK to make mistakes.

Does it get any easier?

No.

Accepting mistakes is never easy for a perfectionist, not even after decades of training. But it becomes a calculated risk. It’s deducted from the amount of pressure we apply to ourselves. We get used to it. And then we realize we’re more productive now than we were back then, when we tried to get everything perfect all the time.

We realize that what we feared all along—cutting ourselves some slack, slowing down or tackling things one at a time—is in fact good for us. It unwinds us, allows us to breathe and work naturally, it frees us. WE SUDDENLY SHINE, like we always wanted to. And not because we drove ourselves to extremes and almost went mad in the process. Because we let go of internal pressure.

That’s the grand secret.

Stop pressuring yourself. You’re better off—and a better you—when you’re unconstrained. You get better results too!

Writing a manuscript? Fuck editing and censoring! Fuck grammar and style. Get the story down on paper the way it unfolds in your head. Be wildly creative. Don’t worry about rules, other commitments and duties you normally have. You’re a STORY BIRTHING GOD, there is no world beside the one you’re shaping. Now smite those worries and CREATE!

Revising or editing said manuscript? Fuck other stories! Fuck the internet and TV shows, fuck the Playstation and your favorite books. Don’t fill your head with other voices, other styles and other characters. Focus on the story in your hand, and let the world burn. Let it all burn down to ash, then roll around naked in that ash, because only you and your story matter right now.

Trying to build a name for yourself? How the hell are you going to do that without a finished work? Without a story to share, you’re sitting in a motor-less car. Flapping your arms in free-fall without a parachute. You’re BLEEDING CREATIVE ENERGY for naught! And man, fuck that platform and the publishing industry right with it. GO WRITE AND POLISH. And when your story is done and burning your fingers with eagerness to conquer the world—then you can dive into the crowd. Then you have something to show, regardless if it’s perfect or not. It’s YOURS. Hold your head high and your magnum opus into the sun, wrapped in glittery unicorn leather and blessed by virgin angel fairies. People will see you have walked the gauntlet and survived, and they will be happy with you. Then, and only THEN can you move on and begin a new project.

And if your family needs you, then jolly-well go take care of your loved ones! The people in your life, the ones who care about you and who stand by your side are much more important than any project. You can return to a dropped manuscript in ten years, but your sick aunt won’t be there anymore, your kids will have grown up, your spouse will have aged without you. You’ll never get that precious time back from people, but novels… novels can wait for you a life-time.

Set your priorities straight.

Take one thing at a time.

Enjoy your life.

Accept delays, complications, and mistakes.

Relax.

True happiness does not come from perfection, but from acceptance and living in the moment.

24 Replies to “Dealing With Perfectionism As A Writer”

  1. Nice post, Veronica!

    I know how all of that feels. I published my book in August last year… You know what? You have a dated copy now. I was revising some minor things until I finally said this May, FUCK IT. It’s done and it’s already out there, enough polishing and sweating over it. So I finished my second book, gave it a week cool-down time, re-read, an sent it off to the editor. All good. It might be imperfect, I might find something I will not like if I re-read again much later, but I won’t touch it anymore (at least until the whole trilogy is done), and I moved onto the third part now. Ah, freedom. 😀

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    1. Thanks, Jelena.

      That sounds like a case of ETS — Endless Tinkering Syndrome. I have that too, if I don’t try really hard to let things go. It’s difficult, but necessary.

      Be confident that your story does well on its own, without annual upgrades, and start a new series when this one is done.

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    1. I sometimes think it’s a matter of inner vs. outer discipline. Writers who write tons of books like they’re shaking them out of their sleeves, are usually chaotic wrecks in their lives, while writers who have a tidy life and “clean” public persona, suffer from chaos and disasters when they create. But that’s just a little theory of mine.

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  2. Wow, this is so me. Knowing how to work on only one thing at a time is one of my biggest problems. I’m writing a first draft right now and I know I should be just focusing on the basics but I can’t help wanting to everything at once, and have it all be perfect to boot. Thanks for the advice Veronica, I’ll keep your mantras in mind next time I’m tempted to pile on the pressure.

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    1. You’re certainly not alone with this problem, Jennifer. If I ever find a fool-proof way to get over this annoying need to overdo everything, I’ll blate it out with trumpets and tubas. 😉

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  3. Trying to write something new, while revising an old project, while trying to maintain an active public presence at the same time? AND taking care of family, job and household? That’s racing right down the Highway to Burn-Out. Add to that the weekly Clay Cross/Sheri Lamour ‘tosh’ on OFW never mind soliciting generous-minded authors to contribute on a weekly basis – time management is everything but as you say there are moments when the joy goes.

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    1. Oh my. You need a good, long vacation Mike. There are plenty of cabins up here in the Alps. Gorgeous view, silence and nature and all. Ok, you’d have to sell a kidney to afford renting one for more than a night, but what the heck.

      Wait, no… cloning youself is probably cheaper.

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  4. Nice post. It’s the dread of what might be that paralyses me more than the actual failing or screwing things up. Once I push through that (teeth gritted) it tends to get a lot easier.

    mood

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    1. Yeah… Imagining how others might interpret something we write, or how it will be if all we receive are rejections and pitying smiles, can really paralyze us writers. Controlling and stopping these thoughts and worries is an important skill indeed.

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  5. Great advice almost everyone I know (including me!) needs to remember. It’s so easy to get swallowed by “shoulds”. I am working on allowing myself that messy first draft and reminding myself that it isn’t meant to be birthed perfectly, but like me, is a work in progress.

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  6. Doing NaNoWriMo was theraputic for me. As you told me, I needed to turn off my inner critic. I allowed myself to slap all kinds of stuff down on my screen. It was liberating. Now, I’m going back and editing, but I feel freer to get my ideas down instead of trying to make everything perfect.

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    1. Oh yeah, NaNo has a way of loosening one’s fingers. I enjoyed it too, though I didn’t participate “officially”. I plan to do it again some time. Writing that frantically makes it almost impossible to find the time to worry and fidget about details. I wish I could write like that all the time… or at least now and then.

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  7. Wise words, Veronica. I especially like your suggestion to not get caught up in another author’s style. Always nice to note how successful authors do it, but in the end, we have to discover our own voice.

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  8. “virgin angel fairies?” A new fantasy species I was unaware of.

    The new authors who avidly embraced this new world of self-publishing are hitting the brick wall of over multi-tasking. We can’t keep up the twitter, fb, blog, writing, editing, family, job, breathing…and have smacked against the hard surface of reality.

    We’re so busy with everything else we are supposed to do to be “successful” that we have no time to write something new, or even breathe.

    However, I’d say your blogging expertise has been worthwhile and built a platform for you that should be there when you do publish.
    Some wait until they publish, look around and nobody knows who the heck they are. Flap, flap, flap.

    Keep moving forward, best you can…and smell the roses along the way. Deep breath and keep those alien driven, perfectionism mind disruptions at bay.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sheron! 🙂

      You’re absolutely right. Authors these days have to meet so many demands, most of which aren’t even proven to actually help, that they often and quickly lose their enthusiasm and strength, and only function on a survival autopilot. Afraid to fail, to be invisible, to fall behind, to “not make it”. But fear is NOT good for creativity. We can’t fully live out our love of fiction if all we do is struggle to keep our head above water.

      I’ll keep going, in my own pace, doing what I love because I love it, not because I “must”. I can only hope I manage to remind others that that is what a happy, creative life is about.

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  9. I tend to agree with your view on multi-tasking. And this comes from a project manager who jokes that her job description is one line: “Other duties as assigned.”

    I spent most of today working on ONE project. I got a ton done and I left work feeling fulfilled and successful. When I have to juggle a ton of different things, I may still have accomplished a lot of work, but I get home feeling spent and exhausted.

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    1. Yes, that’s exactly the difference, Cindy. I feel that way about things at work, about taking care of personal matters, and about writing.

      One thing at the time always beats doing several things at once. Even when we manage to get all those simultaneous tasks done, we’ll feel much more drained and unfulfilled than when completing one task after the other. (of course there are cases when time doesn’t allow for sequential work, but in writing, that’s rarely the case).

      Especially when quality matters more than simply getting a job out of the way (as I believe is always the case with good writing), multitasking is really not the best idea.

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  10. Love it! All the fuck this and that and focus on one thing at a time. I am still working real hard to break out of the perfectionist mind set. Yeah, it does suck and shoot I envy those who can just whip out any writing (paper to novel) without pressuring themselves. I am so GUILTY of going into the stories in the past, telling myself that this WILL BE the last draft, etc. Yeah, did not really get me anywhere but burning out and struggling with anxiety attacks.

    I am polishing up a novel that, and I used to feel embarrassed for admitting this, ten years ago when I was 11. It was for a fifth grade school assignment and the summer before high school, I thought hey might as well make the story longer. And I did that summer. Sent it out to agents and from the week before high school graduation and the entire summer, I got around 30-40 rejection letters by literary agents. I felt like a failure, until coming across many stories of writers getting their material rejected for years but they kept at it. So, that is what I am going to do: keep at it and just take it one day at a time. Both with the novel and screenplays. I am always so anxious to send material off to contests and whatnot.

    Patience is the worst enemy .

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  11. I know this post is a couple of years old now, but I just wanted to say that it made me smile.

    As a university student currently feeling crippled by perfectionism, it’s very… reassuring, to see that I’m not totally weird. I get a lot of support from my partner, but whilst she tries her best, I don’t think anyone who doesn’t suffer with perfectionism can ever fully appreciate just how frustrating it is. I guess the same applies to any feelings or mental struggles.

    Anyway, thanks again for this great post, it certainly brightened my evening.

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    1. I’m glad you liked it, Connor. Thanks for leaving a comment!

      Well, it is a few years old, but I’m still dealing with some perfectionism issues. It’s way better that it used to be, so some of the “relax and take things one at a time” advice did actually work. But I still feel sometimes like I’m not doing well enough, and the criteria I use to evaluate that is waaaay too harsh. I mean, I’d never judge others as harshly as I do myself, and I have to constantly remind myself to take it easy.

      I hope things get easier for you too, and that you learn to accept the natural fluctuations in performance that everyone on this planet deals with. 🙂

      Like

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