We have an important topic to discuss today: the dangers of perfectionism in writing.
I know that being a perfectionist has its perks. We apply “perfectionist” to folks who are detail-oriented, reliable, and efficient. Unfortunately, being a perfectionist does precisely the opposite in writing: it obfuscates details, lets your deadlines whoosh by, and creates a deeply inefficient and unsatisfying writing habit.
I struggle with perfectionism in my writing, but I've learned to beat it back with a few large sticks—and it's my pleasure to teach you my tools of the trade.
Identifying Perfectionism in Writing
How do you know if this is you? If you struggle with perfectionism in your writing, here's what you're likely to experience:
- A lack of satisfaction in your own writing (because it's never good enough).
- An inability to stop editing it and just move on (because it's never good enough).
- Aggravated fear and stress at the thought of your writing going public (because it's never good enough—yes, we said that already).
- A feeling of failure regarding your work (because it's never… you get the idea).
- An absence of fun or enjoyment when you write (completely understandable because it's never good enough).
Any of those items ring a bell?
Here's the thing: part of the reason perfectionism in writing is so deadly is because it's a vague standard. What the heck is “perfect” in writing? Is there such a thing? Seriously? There are no “perfect” books or authors; even Shakespeare has readers who loathe him, as does every other author in the universe including your personal favorites.
“Perfectionism” in writing is deadly because it doesn't actually mean anything. All it does is poison the well.
So where does that leave you? There's no “off-button” for the drive of perfectionism, but there is hope.
Admit You're Wearing Blinders
You will never see your story as clearly as other people do. This goes back to that thing I refer to as “writer-brain.” We do not see our writing the way a reader would. We can't; we're too close to it, too wedded to the rhythms and pacing.
In your writing, you will see every single flaw. You will see flaws in spots where your voice just hasn't fully formed yet as a writer (which is fine because that takes TIME). You will see flaws even where there aren't flaws—just places that could be worded differently. To you, these flaws seem like glaring, horrifying potholes.
The good news is, these flaws might not be as bad as you think.
This is one of those reasons it's essential to belong to a healthy writing community. When we write alone, our muses tend to be cannibalistic and eat each other. The helpful opinions of other writers do matter, and if they don't think that chapter sucked like you thought it did, you have to acknowledge they may be right.
Be Willing to Put it Aside For a While
“What the hey, lady?” you might be saying. “Every article, you're telling me to take time off from writing. Is this about writing or not-writing, anyway?”
It's about writing—kind of like an exercise program is about exercise even on your days off.
Our minds and bodies work the same way. We have to exercise them to get in shape (the more you write, the better you get), but just like your muscles, if you don't take time off, instead of growing, your writing muscles will atrophy and possibly get sprained.
Any of you who've ever done a real exercise program know this. The days you take off are every bit as important as the days you work out. Skip them to your detriment—and writing is the same way.
Publish It—Even When It's Not Perfect
Okay, I can hear your screams from here. Take a minute to breathe. I'll wait.
Do you remember this video? (If not, I highly, HIGHLY suggest you watch it. And if so, I suggest you watch it anyway.)
I know how hard it is to release your words to the world when you feel they aren't quite ready. I know. But the reason it happens is because you know how good you want it to be, and you're subconsciously comparing it to your favorite authors—most of whom have been writing years longer than you.
(Seriously. Watch the video.)
Right now, at this time, you may not be able to get that piece of writing up to the standard you want for yourself.
It doesn't mean you don't publish it.
If you want to become a better writer, you have to be willing to put stuff out there that isn't perfect. Yes, you edit it, yes, you have beta-readers comb through it, yes to all of that—you make it as good as you're capable of making it right now. But after all that, if you don't make it public, you're feeding the poison of perfectionism, and you will find yourself paralyzed.
This step is crucial. Neil Gaiman said it this way: “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
Conclusion: Avoid the Vagueness of “Perfect Writing”
Be brave, fellow writers. Perfectionism will only harm you. Are you ready to keep moving? I hope so. I need encouragement on that front myself, so let's all help each other. Trust your writing community to help you get the story into the shape it needs to be, and keep on writing.
Do you have any pieces you're frozen on because of perfectionism? Let me know in the comments section.
Take something you've been working on forever. Something you're afraid of sharing. Something that hasn't felt quite right yet, something that's paralyzed you—and share it in the comments below. Don't forget to respond to three other writers, too!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.