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5 Signs Perfectionism Is Killing Your Writing

perfectionismSomeone who wants to write a book hired me as a writing coach because she couldn’t seem to get the writing done. We talked for a while and I suggested we set up a series of writing assignments and see if during that process we couldn’t surface what was going wrong.

She agreed and we outlined the process like this:

She would find five 30 minute periods over the next 10 days where she would write at least 100 words. She would send me the 100 words or more to me at the end of each session along with a few brief comments letting me know how it felt.

By the second assignment I knew at least part of the problem was an unrealistic demand for writing perfection. I’ve talked about the drive for perfectionism before and I think it’s always worth another look. Here are five signs or symptoms that indicate your letting some notion of writing perfect prose stop you.

You can’t get the first sentence right

I’ve known writers who couldn’t get past the first sentence, or even the title work, because they didn’t think the sentence or title was exactly right. Often our first attempts at getting a writing project started look more amateurish than we ever want to admit. A truth is, however, first sentences are often just crummy partly because we don’t know what the rest of the piece going to say.

Get down something for the title and the first sentence or two. One of the joys of writing with computers is it so darn easy to edit. There’s no excuse for not getting started with a writing project.

Of course like so many things, that ability to edit with ease can create problems as we rewrite and recast a sentence or paragraph over and over again as a way to avoid moving forward.

Your internal editor won’t shut up

Successful writers have a decent internal editor. It’s that voice that lets us know when a sentence is complete, understandable, etc. That internal editor however, can become a real problem when you’re first drafting an article or chapter in the book.

Years ago I learned some neurolinguistic programming from Tony Robbins. He said that those internal voices are really there to help us. If, he suggested, we’ve got a voice that is not supporting what were trying to do it probably needs updating rather than suppression. I took this to heart and when my internal editor starts yammering at me when I’m creating a rough draft I actually thank it for its contribution and ask it to wait in till the rough draft is completed. Yes this writer talks to herself and the committee in her head. It works for me.

The real point is you have to find a way to quiet that internal editor when it’s stopping you from writing. I found asking it to wait works and I know it can’t hurt to try that approach. If you have up another approach please share in comments.

Your rough drafts embarrass you

When I get a rough draft completed I celebrate. I know that drafting is just that – getting the ideas down on the screen and then doing the editing and rewriting I need to do.

Sure I usually don’t publish a rough draft, although maybe I will here soon just show you what I mean. I’ve also gotten better at writing cleaner drafts than when I first started writing. That’s not surprising. It’s really hard to get worse at something we practice.

You’re spending more time on research than on writing

Researching, interviewing, making outlines, word lists, searching the Internet, can be helpful and provide grist for the writing mill.

If, however, you find yourself doing any of these things over and over again before you get any actual writing done you’re using them as a way to fool yourself. The only way you’ll get the writing done is by writing. Except that your first effort will need editing and rewriting and move on. Be honest with yourself about what you’re doing.

You never finish a writing project

If you find you never or rarely actually finish a writing project, the chances are it’s because you’re demanding perfection from yourself. The problem with this is there’s no definition of a perfect piece of writing. Neither you nor I would recognize it if we manage to write such a thing.

There really isn’t any writing that’s ever been written, with the exception of some poetry perhaps, that can’t be improved. Writing is not like mathematics or arithmetic. There isn’t a formula that guarantees you’ve got it right.

Write your rough draft. Do the editing and rewriting as best you know how. Get it done and get it sold and move on to the next piece. By the way, the exercise of assigning yourself X number of words a day can work for anyone willing to use it.

Do you fall victim to perfectionism? Tell us about it in comments.

Write well and often,





{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Great post Anne! When I am writing blog posts, I find that sometimes my internal editor keeps telling me to make more changes in order to improve the initial draft. I make 2-3 revisions and then I try to let it go. But sometimes I have to admit that I become a bit of perfectionist.
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