Perfectionism is a common issue for writers but successful, productive authors know how to deal with critical voice and work despite its presence. In this post, T. Thorn Coyle offers six ways to defeat the perfectionism that may be holding you back.
What does the word “perfect” mean to you?
How does perfectionism affect your creative process?
For some of us, perfectionism means we just never finish that story, or essay, or novel, or poem.
For others of us, perfectionism traps us in endless cycles of revision.
And for still others of us? Perfectionism leaves us riddled with self-doubt and paralyzed with the fear that we aren’t good enough. It can lead to comparison-itis, too.
So how do we deal with it? There are many ways, but here are six simple strategies to help us. Pick one or two to begin, and just try:
1. Name Your Critics
This may seem counterintuitive at first. Why would you want to name your critics?
Naming something helps us deal with it. Instead of some free-floating, critical anxiety getting us down, this helps us say, “Oh, right, that’s my Aunt Marge’s voice. She never likes anything.”
Whether we are naming our inner critics or that one-star reviewer on Amazon, sometimes the simple act of naming can help calm those voices down. It also helps us recognize that the whole world isn’t waiting for us to fail.
2. Banish Your Critics
Banishing our critical voices is often easier said than done. But starting with naming can help us pinpoint their agendas. Often these voices are trying to keep us small, or even safe. They might also be the voices of old friends or jealous colleagues that really would like nothing more than to see us crash and burn.
Both sets of these voices can constrict your creativity and stop your writing flow. So banish them. Tell them they are not welcome in your workspace, at your notebook, voice recorder, or computer.
They need to go somewhere else.
When you set out to write, take a breath, and imagine pushing those voices outside the circle of your workspace on one, big, long exhalation.
Then, claim your space and write.
3. Finish What You Write
Sometimes stalling out on a project is a sign that we need a different viewpoint, or a short break, or to do a specific piece of research.
However, often, stalling out on a project is a sign that we’ve given in to perfectionism. Our critical voice has been driving the bus.
We want to know the right way for the novel or essay or poem to go. We want to not waste time following some random intuition on what comes next. Or we’re bored and decide our whole manuscript is boring.
It’s important to finish what we write, because otherwise, perfectionism—and those critics—always wins. Finishing what we start allows us to practice. And practicing helps us become more skilled.
Find a thread that interests you and follow it until you’re ready to type “the end.”
[Note from Joanna: for more on defeating perfectionism, check out my book The Successful Author Mindset.]
4. Hold Your Creativity Lightly
Speaking of allowing ourselves to practice: As soon as we tense up around our writing, trying to make it perfect, the creative flow slows down and sometimes grinds to a halt.
Our stories—and essays, and blog posts, and poems—need not be perfect. They simply need to be the pieces of writing that they are. When we make our writing too precious, its importance looms, and the task becomes too heavy and too large.
Remember: creativity is fun! If your writing feels too much like a chore rather than a thing you look forward to, give yourself a break. Stop writing what you think you ought to be writing. Give yourself a day—or a week, or a month—to play. Write wild songs. Make up limericks. Get back to doing Morning Pages.*
Write for the sake of writing, because it’s something that you like to do.
5. Write the Next Sentence
One of my writing mentors, Dean Wesley Smith, advises us to always “write the next sentence.”
If your brain locks up, or you want to figure out what that right direction is? Just take a breath, drop back into the character’s point of view, and write the next sentence. And then the sentence after that.
Do you write non-fiction? The technique is similar. Take a breath. Release your attachment to what’s right and drop back into your topic. What’s the thread? Write the next sentence. And then the sentence after that.
6. Write and Release
This means you write the story that wants or needs to be written and—whether or not you think it’s any good—send it out into the world.
Sure, give it an edit first, but then post it to your website. Send it out for publication. Make a cover and blurb for it and upload it to all platforms for sale.
You might be surprised at the response. Someone out there will read what you’ve written. Your writing may give them a chance to think or offer one moment of enjoyment. It may even change their life.
And what if there is no response at all?
Well, you’re allowing yourself to practice, aren’t you?
And practice helps us continue to kick out our need for perfection.
Practicing keeps us in process. And the process of creativity? It’s a beautiful, messy, thing.
*The concept of Morning Pages comes from writer Julia Cameron. Three handwritten pages of whatever you want. I also like Natalie Goldberg’s version: set a timer for 5-10 minutes and don’t stop writing until it’s done. No cross-outs, no censoring. Just flow.
What strategies do you use to avoid letting perfectionism stop you from writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
T. Thorn Coyle is the author of two contemporary fantasy series—The Witches of Portland and The Panther Chronicles—and has written six books of non-fiction, plus countless stories, essays, and poems. Thorn also teaches creativity courses online—including Kicking Out Perfection— at Lifelong Creative. Check out their work at www.thorncoyle.com.