Perfectionism Doesn't Love You (So It's Time To Declare War)

The voice in your head that rags on you for having flaws? Yeah. Kick it out of your writing life. |

One of the biggest enemies to a healthy writing life is perfectionism. 

Of course, it won't tell you that. It has a fantastic propaganda machine going. It has this great lie it tells. 

Perfectionism says: I'm the way to make sure that your writing is any good. Believe ME, and I'll make sure that you write something worthwhile. 

But don't believe it. It's a trick. A scam. Because perfectionism won't sign off on ANYTHING. And in the meantime, it will make you totally miserable, if it doesn't shut you up entirely. 

And anything that annihilates your confidence and keeps you from working--that's not a good thing to keep around your writing life.

So we need to kick perfectionism out.

Here are three places where perfectionism tries to run your life (and what you can do instead).

Perfectionism panics in the face of growth. Perfectionism sees challenges as occasions for grand despair. Because, it reasons, you won't be able to do it well enough. You won't figure this new skill out.

It can't bear the early stages of a new skill. It's anti-mess. It can't tolerate rubble. It doesn't do process.

Perfectionism is usually the thing bleating "I can't!!" into my brain when I try something new. What it means by that is, I can't guarantee that I will be able to do this perfectly; I can't guarantee that I won't look foolish. Which means that it is Not Allowed. Back away. I can't do it.

That is a big, paralyzing message. 

One of the best ways to fight it: Write crap. 

Yes, I've said that before. Yes, I'll keep saying it. 

When perfectionism flares up and says, NO, you'll do it wrong, this is what you need to do. You need to lean in and DO IT WRONG.


Flail on paper. Be sloppy. Stutter.

Write the most one-sided character you can. Fill up your dialogue with "Um, like, totally awesome, I mean, OMG and LOL and stuff." Throw in the profoundly dull plot twist. Set the next scene in the most unoriginal place possible.

Then sit back and admire your handiwork. In spite of everything, YOU HAVE WRITTEN. So, refuse to panic. And listen as perfectionism does a long, slow death rattle.

Can I tell you a secret about what you just wrote? Everything changes when you call it a placeholder. It's just hanging out in your draft until you know how to do it better. That's all. It's doing its job. Holding that place. And everything is fine.

Writing doesn't come out perfect. Ever. Improvements come slowly. But they don't come at all if your hands cramp up and your brain squeals and perfectionism marches you away from the desk.

When we focus on what we can't do, we miss everything that we can do. And you can do so much, lionheart. So very much.

Perfectionism blasts a message of "This is terrible" whenever reading your writing. It might tell you that it has your best interests in mind. It wants your writing to sound good. And this isn't good.  

Argue back. Decide that there's something more terrible than really smelly writing. What's really terrible is choking up to the point of not writing at all. What's terrible is walking away from writing, because you'll never be good enough.

Remind yourself that no book, no article, no piece of written anything can be declared perfect. Perfection in writing is massively subjective. You won't get there. You just won't. 

Embrace the idea of versions. Of all your works being works-in-progress. You'll improve it on the second try. You'll do as a 2.0 version.

(Obviously this doesn't work in all situations, but it does work more often than perfectionism would ever guess. You can have a second version of a blog post, a conversation, an outing, even a birthday. There are so many times when you can simply try again. And it's just fine.)

Counter that brittle idea of "perfection" by aiming for Good Enough. This, like so many excellent tricks, comes from Heather Sellers

Listen to how she describes it:

"Do the best you can" means you put honest-to-God everything you have into your book. You can't call it Good Enough until you have stretched yourself, dug deep, pushed yourself, and really truly...given the book everything you have. ... You bring the book up from the very depths of you....

When you are giving it your best, nothing is held back. ... When you give it everything, everything, there are still going to be flaws. And that's when you say, at the very end of the day, Good Enough. 

Good Enough isn't settling. It's celebrating the truth." -- from Chapter after Chapter 

Isn't that beautiful? You give it everything you have. And that means that there will be flaws. And that's okay.

Tell perfectionism that--insist on that in your mind--and watch it blow up. 

Perfectionism has an all-or-nothing point of view. It doesn't allow for complexity. If it sniffs out a few flaws (and it can always find a few flaws), then the whole piece, the whole book, the whole writer, is rotten. 

When I dive into revision, perfectionism looms over my desk. I find myself making a massive list of revisions I need to make: I need to fix everythingAll at once. When my tally of changes hits triple-digits, I finally catch the smell of perfectionism's bad breath. 

To fight this, I get rebellious. Audacious.

I countered my 100+ list of revisions by radically deciding I would only focus on three changes.

Perfectionism spluttered. "What about seventy-five?" it said, very seriously.

"THREE," was my answer. 

And I set off on one of the happiest revision experiences I've ever had. With each chapter, I focused on just dealing with those same three issues, over and over. Calmly.

And as perfectionism leaned in to point out a dozen glaring errors, I'd cover my ears and shriek, "Only three!!"

You have to do a lot of shrieking if you're battling perfectionism. It doesn't respond to subtle. It doesn't understand polite.

You've got to be rude. Get in its face. It wants to take your writing life away from you. Get aggressive.

Really, it comes down to this. You need to realize--deep down realize--that perfectionism doesn't have your best interests in mind. It just likes being loud and feeling smug. It's empty. It doesn't have anything to offer you. It won't keep you safe.

So don't let it boss you around.