Perfectionism and Writing

To start this post, I looked for a quote about perfectionism.  I found one that’s perfect.

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” — Anne Wilson Schaef


I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, and a teeny-tiny bit obsessive-compulsive.  I’m also probably a little bit bipolar, but that’s a (painful) topic for another post.

So when I say I’m a perfectionist, what do I mean?

I don’t like doing something if I can’t do it right.  “Good enough” is almost never good enough.  When I’m working on a project, I don’t just spit it out and move on.  I obsessive over it, continuously tweaking and adjusting, as reluctant to give it up as an oyster with its pearl.

This isn’t to say that I’m perfect.  It doesn’t even mean I’m necessarily good at the things I try.  It just means that when something isn’t right, I hang on and stress over it way longer than I should.

And I know that a lot of people say that they’re perfectionists when they aren’t.  Maybe I’m one of those people.  But if you ask my wife if I’m a perfectionist, she’ll probably say yes, and then point at my side of the closet.


So how does that influence my writing?

For starters, it makes my writing slower.  I get hung up on the little things.  I obsess longer than I should over things that just don’t matter.

The worst thing, though, is that I have a tendency to edit while I’m still working on the first draft.

On the positive side, my first drafts come out very clean.  Many people have read my first drafts and told me that they thought it was a second or third draft.  That seems good, except that all first drafts are crap, mine included.  I still need to go back and edit everything I do.  If I just waited to edit my work until the entire first draft was done, I would have greater perspective on the things that need editing, and the whole process would be faster.


I have a powerful inner editor.  It’s more like an inner demon, especially when I’m being particularly perfectionist.  Nothing healthy ever comes from being a perfectionist with a first draft.  Only unnecessary stress, and then feelings of guilt when the project is slow, and falls behind expected goals.


This is one of the reasons that NaNoWriMo is awesome.  When I participated in NaNoWriMo last year, I got behind.  The perfectionist editor inside my head kept on chattering as I was plugging along, making me go back and fix tiny things that could be fixed later.  The editor kept hounding me, deep into the month of November… and then stopped.  I reached a point where if I was going to finish the project, I had to get words on the page, no matter the quality.  NaNoWriMo forced me to abandon perfectionism, if only for a few days.


If you are a perfectionist and you’re looking at starting a story, find a way to silence that part of you long enough to get the first draft done.  I know that it’s easier said than done.  I’ve only been able to do it a few times, but when I’ve done it, I’ve managed to finish stories.  Do whatever you need to in order to get the first draft out of your head and onto the page.  Bribe yourself.  Trick yourself.  Keep telling yourself that you can be a perfectionist on the next draft, which is the truth.  There’s time for making it perfect later.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself.  I know that when I turn a scrutinizing eye towards myself, I can be quite vicious.  Being a perfectionist with writing is an avenue to self torture, and it won’t make you produce work any faster, or of any higher quality.  So don’t do that.

And if you know how, please share with me.

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