The last full week of September brought an outpouring of anxiety to my social media feeds and groups (Twitter and Facebook) about Impostor Syndrome, which I wrote about here. This morning brought an explosion of worries over Perfectionism. Perfectionism is related to and can cause Impostor Syndrome. As I did before, I’m going to offer what advice I can to help those who are trying to overcome perfectionist tendencies so they can be happier, more productive writers.
Why is perfectionism a problem?
Many of us are taught from a young age that we should always do our best; early on we are told we should strive to write (actually physically form the letters) clearly, while later on, we are told we should strive to perfect our grammar, punctuation, spelling, essay/novel structure, paragraphing, pacing, … Thus, throughout our lives as writers we are encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to internalise other people’s expectations and ideas of what is perfect.
To an extent, professional writers and students have to meet other people’s expectations. But too often, we inflate what others expect of us. We need to get some perspective and stop holding ourselves to impossible standards. If you don’t believe me, find a short piece by an author you admire. Read it carefully and critically. Is it really absolutely perfect? Can you really not find even a phrase that could be more elegant? a misplaced comma? a misspelled word? After you find one or more ‘problems’, ask yourself, ‘Do I still value this person’s work?’ The answer is probably ‘Yes’. If it’s ‘No’, spend some time re-evaluating your standards; we don’t live in an ideal world and only an ideal world can be perfect.
Slaying the perfectionist demon
Almost every writer I k now sometimes has to slay the perfectionist demon. Actually, I can only think of one writer I know personally who doesn’t occasionally struggle with this—they were lucky enough to have learned, years before I met them, how to think through writing. The result is that they never get anxious about putting words on a page because it doesn’t feel any more permanent or stressful than having thoughts in the privacy of their mind.
The rest of us need tools for taming or slaying the demon. I say taming or slaying because I recognise that there will be days that you can’t vanquish your demon—maybe you don’t have time, or you’re ill and don’t have the energy—but you still need to be able to put a muzzle on it so you can get some work done.
I wish I could say that once you vanquish the perfectionist demon it will never come back, but that has not been my experience. You may need to return to the list below should it rear its ugly head later in your career.
I’m going to list (in no particular order) things you can do or remind yourself of when you feel your perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of your writing:
1) Tell yourself, over and over until you believe it, that you are not your writing. You are a complete human being. Those near and dear to you will love you no matter what you write or how it’s received. Since writing is a personal process for many of us, it is easy to conflate our identities as writers with our identities as people. If this is one of the primary ways your perfectionism presents itself, put a note above wherever you write that says something to the effect of ‘I am not my book/thesis/essay/etc.’ It will feel silly; if you’re in a shared office, you might want to put it inside your planner instead. Wherever you put it, seeing this message frequently will help you come to believe it.
2) Change your writing situation. If you tend to edit as you write and find that instead of finishing that section you meant to write this afternoon, you’ve been writing and rewriting the first sentence for the last two hours, you need to short-circuit your inner critic. If you touch-type, open a new document and turn off your computer screen. Yes, you’ll have typos, but you’ll also make progress because you can’t edit what you can’t see. You can also try ‘tricks’ like writing in crayon on unlined paper while sitting in the grass outside (obviously that last part is dependent on the weather—I couldn’t recommend it in southern England today—far to gray and cold). I discuss other such changes you can make in my ebooklet on writer’s block, which you’ll find here.
3) Form or join a writing group. If your perfectionism is making you so uncomfortable that you just don’t even want to try to write, find some like minded people who will meet with you and write with them using the Pomodoro Method—briefly discuss your writing goals for that meeting, set a timer for 25 minutes and write, take a short break to discuss your progress, repeat. You’ll find some online writing groups that do this, such as this one.
4) Get someone else to read your work. If your perfectionism doesn’t really get going until it’s time to send your work out into the world, get someone to read it. Find a friend who’s also a writer and offer to trade chapters and offer each other support. Ask a mentor or supervisor to look at your work. Hire an editor. Join an online group in which members critique one another’s work. Whichever approach you choose, finding a way to have your work read in a less high stress situation than submitting it for marking or publication will make it easier for you to take that final step when the time comes.
If none of these strategies works and/or you find that your perfectionism is causing problems in your life more generally (or that it is so severe that it is crippling your career), you may need professional help. If you can’t afford, or are not interested in, talk therapy, investigate self-help options. If you live in the UK, you can get free help through the NHS; you’ll find more information on that here. Many people have had success using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy—either with a therapist or on their own. There are many websites and books devoted to CBT. I haven’t used any of them, so I can’t suggest anything in particular. Use what works for you, but remember to check the sources of any online therapy—you want resources created by qualified professionals, not quacks.
Baty, Chris. No Plot? No Problem! –this is aimed at fiction writers, but all writers can find some useful tips—for silencing your inner critic, see chapter five.
Jensen, Joli. Write No Matter What—this is aimed at academic writers, but as with Baty, other writers will find it useful. For dealing with perfectionism, see chapter nine: ‘Demons in for Tea’.
Murray, Rowena. Writing for Academic Journals—this is likely only useful for academic writers; don’t let the title fool you, the advice in this book would work for other forms of academic writing, too. I haven’t read any of Murray’s other books, but she does have one that focuses on writing the PhD thesis.