Kill Perfectionism With This One Practice

by Guest Blogger | 35 comments

This guest post is by Kimberly Dawn Rempel. Kimberly helps authors expand their reach and attract and impact more people with their powerful messages. For insights and direction on how to market your writing, join her Facebook group, Marketing-Savvy Authorpreneurs, or grab her free resource, 14 Ways to Leverage Your Book for More Sales NOW.

It can feel impossible to know where to start writing.

Kill Perfectionism With This One Practice

We can become paralyzed by fear, worrying our words will offend or bore readers, or worse, that we’ll never have any readers at all.

If we jump in, we might quickly find ourselves nose-deep in all the complications of story writing, tangled in plot, character development, and dialogue tags. Or a Google search might drown us in writing advice, suddenly flinging us into an identity crisis — who are we, why do we write? Are we plotters or pantsers? How can we even know the difference? *hides under desk*

This isn’t just a problem for newbies, either.

The Story of a Perfectionist Writer

Despite having been a published nonfiction writer for over a decade, when I wanted to branch into fiction writing, I had no idea where or how to start.

As a planner, it made sense to me to begin with an outline. I started there, but pretty soon I became bogged down in perfectionism, trying to think the whole story out before beginning to write it. The story screeched to a halt.

I’d heard many stories are character led, whatever that meant, so I created a character; a gruff, bristly cowboy, leaning up against a barn, with a cigarette smouldering between his thick fingers. Unfortunately for him, that was all the depth I could give him without the context of a story. Years later, when I’d think of him, he’d still be standing there, smoking that same cigarette, isolated and alone without a plot to live in. Poor guy.

My solitary efforts yielded nothing, so I read. And researched. And listened to podcasts and watched videos. (A perfectionist’s fancy way of procrastinating.) In the swirl of information, the identity crisis hit. Who was I? Why did I want to write fiction? Was the ability inborn, or could I learn it?

Pretty soon I was convinced fiction writing was too complicated for me.

The Advice That Transformed My Writing

Finally I invited my friend for coffee and to beg for advice. She's an avid fiction author who pumps out at least one book a year and has thirty titles to her credit, so I knew she’d have some excellent insight.

“How on earth am I supposed to do this??” I asked her. “How does one create a story?” I leaned in, eager for the key to my fiction-writing success.

She shrugged. “You just write it.” She said it matter-of-factly, like it was as obvious. To me, it was obviously wrong. That’s what I’d been trying to do, and it wasn’t working.

“Just write it? I can’t do that. I need a plan.”

“No you don’t. I start most stories without a plan. As I write, the story comes.”

“What?! That’s insane!”

She shrugged again. “You might end up writing a whole lot of crap, but if you keep going, you find the good stuff.”

I didn’t buy it, but let the advice percolate. Writing was too difficult a task to risk “writing crap.” I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Then, in the book Outlining Your Novel, K.M. Weiland proposed two words that changed my life: “What if?” I realized finding the answer would necessitate a lot of dead-end scenarios. I would have to jot down a lot of crummy ideas and terrible plots before I came up with the best one. I would have to allow those incomplete, embryonic, never-to-see-the-light-of-day ideas out onto paper.

That’s when I realized my friend’s advice was true. I would have to “just write it.”

That morning, I sat to write a fiction piece. Anything. It didn’t matter. I was just going to make it up on the spot. Even if it was crap, I decided, it would at least blunt the perfectionism that had held me back.

Inspired by a painting, I wrote one line. Then another. I kept adding one after the other without knowing anything about who was in the story or why. It was a freeing exercise to “just write.” What resulted was a mediocre story that had a reasonable plot and semi-inspiring conclusion.

3 Lessons About Perfectionism From a Writer Who “Just Wrote”

The experience taught me three things:

1. Giving yourself permission to write total crap quiets perfectionism

Perfectionism isn’t necessarily bad. In its healthy state, it can drive us to achieve goals and feel a deep sense of satisfaction as a result. In its unhealthy state, though, it can freeze us with fear or cripple us with self-criticism. That’s the version we need to break free from.

It starts with giving ourselves permission to not be perfect — to write crap.

With that permission firmly in place, it becomes this decision to conduct an experiment, the results of which do not define us or our abilities.

This one, highly effective, low-risk decision can make an effective path through perfectionism. It sure did for me.

2. Permission to write crap unlocks creativity

Creativity is a cautious, tender creature. It hides from anything that might kill it — like the pressure we put on it to be something it isn’t.
However, with the decision to cast aside high-achievement and simply run an experiment, suddenly the pressure to write the next Harry Potter dissipates, and we’re free to let whatever we think of flow onto that blank page.

Permission to write crap unlocks creativity.

“It’s about getting that critic out of the way and immersing yourself in a flow of pure creativity. Do that, and you’re doing well.” Sean Platt, Write, Publish, Repeat

3. To grow in the craft of writing, one must write

Research, reading, thinking, or “letting it percolate” do not a book write. They’re necessary to the process of writing, but they are not the only elements.

Knowing and doing are two different things — it’s the difference between knowledge and experience. One can become knowledgeable about driving by reading books, interviewing the best drivers and car manufacturers, and studying related stats.

When they get in the car, though, the realities of the experience come to life. Hundreds of traffic signs, lights, pedestrians, and flashing ads all pull attention from what seemed like a simple task. Understanding is born.

Sometimes, perfectionism is just a cover for procrastination.

The Secret to Writing Success

Here it is: At some point, every single writer must finally follow these three steps: 1) Place butt on chair. 2) Place fingers on writing apparatus. 3) Write words.

Give yourself permission to do just that, and who knows what stories you'll create?

What strategies do you use to overcome perfectionism in writing? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to write a very short, 500-word story that you’ll make up on the spot. Before beginning, decide to allow yourself to write crap. Afterward, share your experience (not what you wrote) in the comments or tell us how you have found the advice to “just write” to be true in your own life. Remember to leave feedback and encouragement for your fellow writers, too!

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35 Comments

  1. Doug Romig

    The “Just Write” philosophy works well for me. I had an idea for a short story about an FBI profiler going after an evil profiler. The 5,000 word short story turned into a 94,000 word novel. You are right. The secret is butt on chair, fingers on keyboard, words from whatever muse likes you. My muse calls herself Morphiella, Queen of the Iguanas. My muse has issues.

    Reply
    • Rose Green

      I’ve never found out my muse’s name… I might try that.

    • Evelyn Sinclair

      But you do have a muse. How can I find one/mine?

    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      “My muse has issues.” LOL!!

      LOVE how the 5000 exploded into 94,000. I’m working on expanding my own short story right now too. 🙂

  2. Ramp

    That’s excellent advice! Many times I find myself wondering what to write about and I end up with nothing but a blank page after an hour or so. Then I tell myself ” Come on, just write something, ” and write a sentence that doesn’t make sense at all. Then I laugh and add a second one. Then a third. A fourth. Within the next one hour, it becomes a story. Sure, it won’t be the best story in the world( quite a horrible one, in fact), but the important thing is that I get the satisfaction of putting down what’s in my head onto the page.

    Reply
    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      Haha, brilliant!

  3. Glynis

    I call myself a recovering perfectionist. NaNoWriMo was my first introduction to this idea of just write it down and give yourself permission to put crap on the page. You can always fix it later, but if you haven’t written anything, what is there to perfect? I’m still working on it, but that mindset has completely changed my writing life. Thanks for the great reminder.

    Reply
    • Rose Green

      Nano was the thing that broke me out of endless perfectionism, too! ‘Quantity over quality’ is my mantra in November. Of course, now I’m supposed to be editing something I produced for Nano – and the procrastination demon has me in its grip. I think I need to change ‘just write’ into ‘just edit’!

  4. Lyn Blair

    Great article! So true! One way or another the perfectionist will try to do us in. The perfectionist in me waits awhile before launching its attack.

    I can jump into writing without a problem. In fact, beginning my story is what excites me most. I wrote a whole novel and felt exhilarated as the muse led me through one scene after the next. The perfectionist didn’t rear its ugly head until I got done — then I saw the crap. I jumped into proofreading and word-smthing, etc. The second draft was more polished. I asked my friend, who is a writer, to read over my novel, and she overwhelmed me by saying my novel should’ve been three books instead of one. I needed to spend more time on world building and character building — show don’t tell, etc. Since her critique, I’ve written several short stories, which greatly improved my writing skills. The short stories met with a much more encouraging critique.

    But I’ve also spent fruitless time mulling over the three books idea. How I could make Act 1 in my novel strong enough to be a stand alone story? I’ve read about 14 novels in my genre written by a Wall Street Journal best-selling author. I’m just gathering information…of course. So perhaps two books instead of one? I go back and forth. I’m still stymied.

    Ha…ha… maybe it’s time to place butt on chair, place fingers on writing apparatus, and write words.

    Again, what an awesome blog you wrote. Thanks so much for sharing your insight!

    Reply
    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      “Since her critique, I’ve written several short stories, which greatly improved my writing skills” — YESS!!! THAT’s exactly right. Keep at it, and skills will come.

      Right on.

  5. Matthew

    This is exactly what I need to hear. I almost gave up writing because I couldn’t motivate myself to get started. Even if I create an outline I still couldn’t write anything (and I really hate outlining). I had to find the right words to start a story, I had to follow all the writing rules I learned, and I was holding myself back. And thus I never write a thing. The last thing I wanted was my writing to be garbage. I guess it’s about time to throw caution to the wind and start writing.

    Reply
    • George McNeese

      I’m someone that needs a plan. It’s hard for me to completely write off the seat of my pants. But there comes a time where we have to let the words come and not always follow what we plot out. That’s something I’m constantly learning to do with each story I write.

    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      “The last thing I wanted was my writing to be garbage” Aaah, I hear that!!!

      Here’s something else that helps me when I (still) get stuck on that – I can only steer what’s moving. I can only edit what’s written. If I never write it, it will never ever improve.

      As an editor, I’ve slashed tens of thousands of words from single manuscripts.
      It’s not masochism, I assure you – it’s the cost of clarity.

      As the writer of those hard-won tens of thousands of words then, it’s daunting to dive in knowing some will be slashed by a like-minded editor passionate for clarity.

      Do it anyway!!

      (If it’s any consolation, the slashed scenes don’t have to die – you can always keep the cut pieces in a file somewhere, adding them as “deleted scenes” and “extras” bonuses for your future book launch 😉 )

  6. Anupa Khanal

    Seeing other writers,I used to be really shocked.How could they write such a fine piece? Everytime I wrote I made myself think that I am not a good writer.Reading the article of someone who had felt the same thing makes me better.I am really fueled up now.

    Reply
    • Tom Southern

      They didn’t write that fine piece from day 1. They probably wrote a lot before writing what you read (and rewrote that several times).

    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      Awesome Anupa! Keep at it. Tom’s right – writing, like any skill, takes practice. That means writing a lot of not-that-great stuff first. We all do it. (I sometimes shudder at the stuff I published when I began. But, we all start somewhere, so I’m glad I did it. And kept doing it. There’s no other way to get better at it than to continue. 🙂

  7. T. Ritesh

    Several times I thought to write but never tried. It is fear a fear about bad english, what people will think, they will really like it or will just make a fun of me. Since that is all just because of that I’m not native speaker.

    Reply
    • Evelyn Sinclair

      The write practice community will be a great place for you to be yourself. We will encourage and help you.

    • T. Ritesh

      Feeling happy to see that someone replied for my reply. It is unexpected for me. You wrote this place help me to be myself. It just not this place but at many places I read or from many people I heard that “to be yourself”. But, never understand wha does it mean.

    • Tom Southern

      Don’t let your ability at English stop you writing. Focus on creating a great story. That’s what publishers are interested in. Their editors will sort out your English when they prepare your manuscript for publishing. If you’re going the self-publishing route, ask others writers and readers groups to correct/edit your manuscript. Just get it written.

    • Isa T

      Hey, I’m not a native speaker either. Don’t worry, I think there are more people here that don’t speak perfect english.

  8. WendS

    I write long hand every morning and it doesn’t matter what I write. It will be about what I dreamed the night before and what I feel the meaning of the dream is, or about someone who annoys, pleases or surprises me and as I’m writing mitigating thoughts come to me that either censor or confirm and may succeed in modify my opinions. The mind is a beautiful thing. As I’m writing I’ll remember things that I must do that day and I’ll write these down and that process, somehow, solidifies and prioritizes the tasks in my mind. I may even simply discuss how much I’m enjoying my coffee that morning.
    Anyway, on the whole, I find it a really great way to start my day. Very cathartic.

    Reply
  9. Evelyn Sinclair

    Great advice. My “book” is around the 18000words mark at the moment, and every time I talk to others about it I realise a new aspect, another character I can introduce or because I am speaking, a better way of writing something. I then go back to the original and insert my extra character, new situation or better phrases and comments.
    I think I need to stop doing this and just keep the story moving forward. These other things can find their way in when I come to edit etc.

    Reply
  10. George McNeese

    Perfectionism is the biggest thing holding me back from writing what I want to write. It leads to a lot of doubt about myself in many facets besides writing. I have heard many times to just write but the perfectionist in me wants to just stick with what I know; not dare to venture out into the unknown.

    I like the advice of allowing myself to write crap; to give myself permission to write anything. The key for me is say out loud that I will write what I want to write, no matter what comes out.

    Reply
  11. Gordon McLean

    Yes yes yes! Could not agree more.

    I struggled to get started over and over and over and then I read Stephen Kings book ‘On Writing’ (yes THAT Stephen King). If you don’t like his novels, that’s cool, but read this book but in essence that is his advice as well. Once you have a single idea that might be a story, just start writing.

    The characters will slowly come to life and flesh themselves out, the plot will develop naturally, and as you come across stumbling blocks you’ll write your way through them as your character rather than as the writer (I need to plan this cos I’m the writer!).

    I’m through a first draft of this approach and it works well enough to give you a draft that you can then start to hone into something palatable… etc etc.

    Reply
    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      Niiiice. I love how you overcame that barrier, completed the first draft, and then continued to work with it. Boom.

  12. Tom Southern

    Perfectionism is a killer. It stalks your creativity looking for ideas to kill.

    Perfectionism is also a misguided desire because you’re comparing your writing to that of published authors, often best-selling authors and this is daft because those authors have probably spent hours practicing writing by just writing. Then they’ve had agents tell them what to improve and how. Then they had editors rewrite their stories until it became a product the marketing department decided would sell. You’re still at the starting out writing stage. So, compare yourself to other writers at the same stage.

    Perfectionism is a great way of not finishing a novel.

    Reply
    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      YES!!! So true that, at it’s core, it’s about comparison – and with people who are surrounded by teams of professionals.

  13. Billie L Wade

    Perfectionism has been my friend/enemy most of my life. I identify with your experience, Kimberly. I spend so much time trying to write the perfect piece that I wind up using stiff language and not enjoying the process. I like the suggestion to “just write.” How freeing that will be when I actually do it. I’m definitely giving it a try. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. Happy Writing to all!

    Reply
    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      Thanks Billie! Glad to hear!

  14. Isa T

    It is very hard for me to allow myself to write crap.
    Often my writing is so bad that I have to laugh when I read it again later (I don’t write humor ) 🙁
    Usually I can’t even tell WHAT makes it sound so stupid.

    That feels embarrassing, even if nobody else reads my stuff and it makes writing kind of frustrating. So I often don’t write for many weeks

    Reply
    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      Oh man… I can identify with that – the laughing at my writing, but not writing humor.
      Usually I’m laughing because it’s like I can relate to the angst the writer is feeling though, not because I think they’re stupid. More like… I’m glad I’m not the only one feeling this way. (Yes, even though it’s me I’m relating to… I know…)

      I’m a fairly serious type, but continue to learn how to take myself less seriously.
      Give yourself permission to not get it perfect.
      Give yourself grace for the process and the practice.

      When you do, something unexpected will happen – not only will you begin to like yourself a lot more, but you’ll also find you like others a lot more too.

      You’re not alone – keep at it!

  15. Karen Moizer

    I realised recently I’ve been trying to write the same story for 4 years on and off. It must want to be written because it keeps hanging around but I’ve prevented myself because I’m so worried it’ll be awful. I like the tips in this article. I started writing today for the first time in a few months. I’ve not read it yet because I’m worried I’ll start picking at the ‘bad’ bits again -just going to keep writing for a few more days before looking at what splurged out.

    Reply
  16. Wendy Maddox

    Thank you. I will write for myself. Who cares what people think. I have stories that need to be written.

    Reply
    • Kimberly Dawn Rempel

      YESS!!!

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