Perfectionism. Many of us are guilty of it. From the college student who wakes up at 4am to go over that paper one more time to the executive who completely reworks their presentation hours before a big meeting. Perfectionism is a personality trait that seems to hit writers especially hard. French author Gustave Flaubert famously devoted himself to finding let mot juste, or “the right word.” Is this compulsion to be perfect a healthy motivator or an anxiety-inducing lost cause?
By definition, a perfectionist regards anything short of perfection as unacceptable. It’s an attitude that’s often associated with high achievement–particularly in America, where an all-or-nothing approach permeates almost every facet of our society. We love hearing about the extreme diet and work out regimens of star athletes like Serena Williams or Tom Brady. Williams is well known for her on-the-court outbursts, a behavior that can easily be attributed to her desire to be the best. Brady, ever the perfectionist, refuses to autograph photographs where his throwing form looks off.
But Flaubert gave us Madame Bovary. Serena Williams has won a record 23 Grand Slam titles. And Tom Brady has 5 Super Bowl rings. So isn’t this behavior worth copying?
The Less-Than-Perfect Truth About Perfectionism
Psychologist Thomas S. Greenspon is an expert on perfectionism, and claims that the most successful people are less likely to be perfectionists. This is because perfectionists are often crippled by their anxiety over making a mistake. If that’s not enough to deter you, Psychology Today also links perfectionism with relationship trouble, exhaustion, and a deeper sense of shame. Fun, huh?
When it comes to writing, perfectionism is particularly harmful because “perfect” writing doesn’t exist. It’s a vague standard, impossible to achieve. I think Pride and Prejudice is a perfect book, while my brother thinks it’s rubbish. Which one of us is right?
Let’s not forget that writers can be a distinctly critical group of people. We tend to pummel our writing until we’ve chosen the best word or sentence structure or hook. Our work is so precious to us that a well-known editing technique is to “kill your darlings,” or remove your most precious passages for the greater good of the piece. Even after multiple edits, it’s hard for us to walk away from our writing and say, “well it’s good enough.” But at some point, we all have to do it—if we don’t, we’ll never finish anything at all.
So for the sake of both your future writing success and your mental health, here are a few tips to get you out of a perfectionist mindset:
- Free write. Get your notebook out or open up a blank word doc and just write. Let your mind wander. This isn’t about what others will think about your writing, it’s about getting all your ideas out there.
- Utilize drafts. Writing is rewriting. Just put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and get a first draft down. It may take multiple drafts to get your work to where you want it to be, and that’s okay! Just take it one draft at a time.
- Get some space. When you’re close to a final product, step away from it for a bit. If you’ve got time to spare, give it a day or two before going back to revise. If one eye is firmly planted on an encroaching deadline in the rear view mirror, don’t let your perfectionism lead to unnecessary anxiety—take a walk, listen to some music, or make a cup of tea before you make the final edit. Clearing your head and getting some distance allows you to see your work in a new, constructive light—without the hours spent stressing over every minute detail.
- Have someone else take a look. The hard truth is, we’re often too close to our writing for our own good. We also have a tendency to develop an internal auto-correct—we know what we meant, so we don’t always notice our typos, even on the tenth read through. But that isn’t the case for others reading what we’ve written for the first time. So whenever possible, have a fresh pair of eyes look over your work. Maybe a trusted colleague, or a friend who owes you a favor. They may spot something you don’t. Or better yet, they may tell you the piece you’ve been agonizing over for weeks is brilliant and you’ve nothing to worry about. A little encouragement now and then is good for the confidence!
- Publish it. Remember there’s no such thing as perfect writing. At some point it’s going to be time to let your baby go out into the world. Pat yourself on the back, tell yourself that it’s “perfect enough,” and hit publish. Do this enough, and you’ll learn to worry less about imperfections and enjoy the act of writing more and more.
At MarketSmiths, we’ll admit we’re all recovering perfectionists at heart. (How many edits do you think this blog post went through?) If you love the idea of writing a great blog for your business but are nervous about getting started, we can help. Our DIY Blogging Course won’t teach you how to be a perfect writer—remember, they don’t exist—but we’ll equip you with everything you need to write quality content that showcases your expertise and helps new customers find you. Get in touch today to find out more.