You have an insatiable thirst for good writing.
You can’t get enough of writing courses and articles that teach you all about how to improve your writing craft.
You devour good books with complex characters, unpredictable plots, and deep themes. You slave away at your own stories, spending hours creating unforgettable plots and characters that leap off the page.
There’s just one problem.
The more you learn about excellent writing, the more critical you become of your own. You can’t seem to make it past the first three chapters. You get stuck on a scene for weeks as you edit and revise it until it’s just right.
You start to panic when someone mentions critique groups and sharing your writing with others. It’s not ready, you think as you tweak your opening sentence for the fifteenth time. It has to be perfect before anyone sees it.
Young writer, you’re not alone. That’s exactly the place I was at just a few years ago. I was crippled by perfectionism, by the fear that I wasn’t a good enough writer. That I would fail at this whole writing thing. And worst of all, that other people would think my stories were terrible.
Perfectionism can feel like an impossible cycle to break out of, but there’s good news: It is possible to overcome perfectionism. It all starts with changing your mindset toward failure and realizing that imperfection is part of the process of becoming a good writer.
But before we get there, let’s start by discussing what perfectionism is and why it can be so detrimental to your writing if you allow it to control you.
What Is Perfectionism?
The Collins Dictionary defines perfectionism as “extreme or obsessive striving for perfection, as in one’s work.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary goes a step further, defining perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.”
In short, perfectionism is exactly what it sounds like: being excessively critical of imperfection.
How can you know if you are really a perfectionist? Here are some signs to look for:
- You spend hours revising and editing your writing until it’s “perfect.”
- You’re driven by an all-or-nothing mindset.
- You’re never satisfied with your writing, no matter how many times you’ve revised it.
- You procrastinate until you have exactly the right words.
- The thought of sharing your work with others is terrifying.
- You see mistakes as unacceptable.
- You struggle to celebrate your accomplishments.
- You constantly compare yourself to other writers.
- You notice even the smallest mistakes in your own (and others’) writing.
- You’re consumed by fear of failure.
- Your self-worth is based on the quality of your writing.
Do you resonate with any (or all) of these signs? Then you’re most likely a perfectionist.
The Cause of Perfectionism
Do you sense a common theme among each of these signs?
Most of them have to do with our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. We believe that our self-worth is tied to our work; therefore, we’re afraid of showing our writing to others. We believe that mistakes equal failure; therefore, we avoid them at all costs.
These wrong beliefs can have serious consequences for us as individuals and writers. For example, perfectionism:
- Keeps you from trying new things. You never challenge yourself to try new genres, experiment with different writing styles, or expose yourself to new perspectives.
- Leads to discouragement and burn-out. You start to wear yourself out and may even begin to dread writing because you’re reaching for an impossible goal.
- Keeps you from sharing your writing with others. Perfectionism keeps you chained to the fear that if it’s not perfect, people will hate it, so there’s no use in sharing it.
The Solution To Perfectionism
Maybe you’re feeling discouraged at this point. I see how harmful perfectionism is, you may be thinking, but how in the world do I conquer it? It feels insurmountable.
Don’t give up yet! Our beliefs can have a powerful hold over us, but they are possible to overcome. I talked earlier about how embracing the right beliefs is the key to overcoming perfectionism. But how exactly do we do that?
It all comes down to changing our mindset from a fixed to a growth mentality.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
In psychology, these two terms are often applied to children and the way they view learning.
Students with a fixed mindset believe that factors such as intelligence and abilities are fixed and cannot change over time. It’s the idea that you’re “born” with an innate ability—you either have what it takes to succeed or you don’t.
On the other hand, students with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities are factors that can grow and develop over time. They see their abilities as something that can change based on learning and experience. Anyone can improve their abilities if they’re willing to put in the time and effort to do so.
Changing our mindset toward learning has been shown to have a significant impact on our success.
For example, a study conducted on seventh graders found that students who were taught about growth mindset performed significantly better on math achievement test scores than students who were only taught study skills. Students in the experimental group attended several workshops that taught them that the brain can form new connections as it is stretched. Also, teachers who were unaware of who was in the experimental group found that those students showed a marked increase in their motivation for learning.
How Does This Apply to You?
Now let’s apply this concept to you as a writer.
Maybe you think that great writers must be born great writers. If you’re not born knowing what makes a good story or the difference between “their” and “they’re,” then you must not have what it takes to be a writer. So what’s the use in trying if you’re not cut out for it anyway?
That’s a fixed mindset.
A growth mindset recognizes that good writers aren’t born good writers. They become good writers. They challenge themselves, seek opportunities, and practice their skills over and over again to get to where they’re at.
Why is having a growth mindset so important for writers?
Author Cassandra Stirling talks about this in her article “The Growth Mindset of a Writer.” She shares how a negative beta reading experience showed her that she needed a serious mindset shift if she was going to make it as a writer.
“A growth mindset breeds resilience for the creative path,” she says. “You need to flex and roll with the punches, the criticism, and the fears because there will be a lot of them.”
Critique and even criticism are an inevitable part of being a writer, especially if you’re seeking to make a career out of it. And the only way to handle criticism in a healthy way is if you adopt the growth mindset–choosing to see every obstacle as an opportunity to grow, instead of a disaster to be avoided at all costs.
Once you realize this, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a brave, resilient writer who welcomes critique because she knows it will make her a better writer.
(To learn more about fixed and growth mindsets for writers, check out this article by Jane Friedman.)
Now that we’ve established what our mindset toward writing should be, let’s dive into some practical tips for conquering perfectionism that, paired with the right mindset, can revolutionize your writing life.
5 Tips To Overcome Perfectionism
1. Just write.
I know, I know. This sounds counter-intuitive, right? If you’re so paralyzed by perfectionism that you can’t sit down and write, then how is it helpful to tell you to “just write”?
Here’s the thing. The only solution to overcoming “perfection paralysis” is to force yourself to write. Even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you can’t think of the right words. Even when you think you’re the worst writer on earth.
Because no matter how many books on writing you read, they won’t make any difference if you aren’t actually implementing them.
If you’re feeling stuck in a fixed mindset, try shifting to a growth mindset, like this:
Instead of: “Everything I write is terrible. I’ll never improve.”
Try: “I might not get it on the first try, but if I keep practicing, I’ll get better at it.”
However, I know forcing yourself to write is easier said than done, so here are four practical tools that can help you stop overthinking and get in the writing zone faster.
This means exactly what it says. Pull up your document and start brain-dumping. Write everything that comes to mind, even if it’s rubbish. Try not to read what you’ve written. Just focus on getting the words out on the page.
b) Write in a notebook.
Sometimes typing on a laptop can feel daunting—like it’s the real thing. So instead, try writing by hand in a notebook. I know it’s slower and more laborious, but it can help you feel less intimidated and more relaxed about writing—almost like you’re just writing in your diary.
c) Change your text to white.
If you’re writing on a laptop, try changing your text color to white so that it’s invisible against the background. This is a great way to keep you from reading what you’ve written and getting stuck in editing mode.
d) Use the Most Dangerous Writing App.
This app deletes all your words if you stop typing for more than five seconds. I haven’t used it before, but I’ve heard raving reviews from other writers. If you’re wanting to improve your writing time fast, this is a great tool to use, although beware of losing work you care about!
2. Remember: the first draft is supposed to be messy.
Another synonym for the first draft is “rough draft,” which gives you an idea of what this draft is supposed to be like—messy.
Instead of: “This draft is a total mess. I’ll never be able to publish this story.”
Try: “This first draft needs work, but I can always change it later. I don’t have to get it perfect the first time.”
Stop putting so much pressure on yourself to get it right the first time! Most professional writers write at least three drafts of a novel, sometimes more, before publication. Think of your first draft as you simply figuring out the story. Not every detail of the story is going to come out right the first time, and that’s normal.
Author Shannon Hale puts it this way: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
I like to think of the first draft as a discovery journey.
Yes, I start out with a general map to work with (the outline), but I can’t know about all the hidden gems along the way until I’m willing to take a few detours and wrong turns. It’s all part of the process of figuring out what’s right for this particular story as you get to know it inside out.
You don’t even have to share this draft with anyone else. It can exist solely for your benefit.
3. Resist the urge to edit (save a list for later).
I know how hard it is to silence your inner editor, but doing so will alleviate the pressure of writing it perfectly the first time and allow you to write so much faster.
Instead of: “Every chapter has to be perfect before I can move on.”
Try: “This chapter will still be here when I come back. I can always improve it later.”
Instead of stopping every few chapters to redo everything you’ve written, practice the habit of writing a list of things you want to fix in draft two when you reach the end of each chapter. Then set it aside and keep going.
That way, you won’t forget the problems you want to fix, but you also won’t waste time making minute edits here and there. In the long run, this practice will minimize interruptions to your “flow” and allow you to write the first draft more efficiently.
4. Get feedback consistently.
Yes, getting feedback for the first time (or the fiftieth time) is terrifying. Even after receiving critique multiple times, it still isn’t easy for me. But remember that receiving feedback from others is the only way you’re going to truly grow as a writer.
There’s only so much you can do on your own. At some point, you have to step out and get the expert feedback you so desperately need to improve.
Instead of: “I can’t share my writing with anyone because they’ll hate it. They’ll see what a terrible writer I am.”
Try: “Even though it’s scary and I know my writing isn’t perfect, getting feedback is the only way I’ll improve. It’s an opportunity to exercise my courage.”
If the thought of sharing your writing with others paralyzes you, start small. Start with sharing just a snippet or a chapter with someone you trust. Then gradually, stretch your courage until you can share an entire manuscript. I think you’ll find that most people (especially new writers like you) will be more supportive than you think.
Sure, there will be the occasional destructive criticism, the kind that tears you down and leaves you discouraged. But most feedback you’ll receive will be constructive, even if it’s hard to hear. Sometimes you need to swallow your pride and accept the other person’s critique, and other times it’s okay to politely thank the person and set aside unhelpful critique.
5. Take time to reward yourself.
As perfectionists and overachievers, we’re often terrible at celebrating accomplishments. We’re always looking to the next milestone or stressing over all the ways we could have done better.
Instead of: “I can’t celebrate until I completely reach my goal.”
Try: “Any progress is a reason to celebrate, even if I’m not as far as I wanted to be.”
You can reward yourself by watching an episode of your favorite show after you’ve met your word count goal for the week. Grab an ice cream cone when you’ve reached the midpoint of your novel. Take a well-earned vacation when you’ve written The End on your first draft.
Take a moment right now to step back and appreciate how far you’ve come. Every achievement, even if it’s small, is one step closer to your goal of becoming a successful writer. And it deserves to be celebrated!
For more tips on overcoming perfectionism, check out this article.
Is Perfectionism Always Bad?
Even though this article has been all about conquering perfectionism, I don’t want you to get the impression that your perfectionist tendencies are a fatal flaw you need to eliminate completely.
In her article “What Does it Mean to be a Writer AND a Perfectionist?”, author Colleen Story points out that we tend to make perfectionism seem like an illness that needs to be cured, a problem that needs to be solved. And while perfectionism in its extreme can be unhealthy, it is not inherently bad.
The goal should not be to get rid of your perfectionism. If you’re like me, perfectionism is part of your personality, ingrained in you to a degree. It’s not something you can just fix. And I wouldn’t want you to.
The goal instead is to learn how to work with your perfectionism in a way that allows you to grow, not stagnate.
It’s learning when to say no to your inner critic (such as when you’re writing the first draft) and when to give it some freedom (such as when you’re editing). It’s learning to control your perfectionism—instead of allowing it to control you—so that you can truly thrive as a writer.
To help you the next time you’re struggling to write, I’ve attached a PDF of “8 Tips for Staying Motivated” that you can use to push past those mind blocks and actually get stuff done. Click on the image below to access it.
Your perfectionism can be a valuable asset to you, young writer. Learn to use it wisely.