I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
~ Elizabeth Gilbert
Perfectionism is fueled by the goblin that sits in our brain diligently thwarting our writing dreams. It whispers that we’re no good, that our writing is no good, that no one will want to read our words, and if they do, they’ll see just what charlatans we really are. And, it doesn’t take very long for the goblin to convince us it knows what it’s talking about. How could we ever have believed that we could write?
How the Goblin of Perfectionism Thwarts Our Writing
Perfectionism is isolating. We become afraid to share what we’ve written for fear that others will judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves (they won’t). It keeps us from taking risks, from trying new things, because we hesitate putting pen to paper for fear that what we write won’t be polished and perfect (it won’t be, and that’s okay). We stop valuing the process and can only see the product, so we sit staring at a blank screen trying desperately to cobble together a flawless opening sentence – or else we get mired in a passage that we wrote last week, tweaking it until it no longer fits in with the rest of our writing and causes us to rethink every other word we’ve written.
Our goblin compares our own words to those of our most beloved authors and finds us lacking. If our writing isn’t filled with elegant, flowing passages, powerful descriptions and meticulously executed twists that rival those of famous authors, we begin to believe that we can’t write at all. Why even try?
At this point, if our goblin hasn’t already convinced us to give up the pen, altogether, we find ourselves working to satisfy its demands. We imagine that our goblin is our perfect reader, that the things it says are the same things that would go through our reader’s mind while paging through our excruciatingly crafted work. We allow our goblin to convince us that our reader would be simply offended by the poor quality of our writing, and indeed would throw the book down mid-chapter with a huff of disgust, angry about being misled into believing it might have had something to say.
Shrugging Off Your Goblin
Take a step back. Does that seem right to you? Try to look at your writing objectively. Do you know your topic? Do you have something to say or a way to say it that might be different from what’s already out there? Are there strong characters? Are there intriguing plotlines? Some surprises along the way?
Your goblin will never identify any positive aspects of your writing. It will never offer you words of gentle encouragement. It will never say, Hey, that’s pretty good. No matter how hard you try, even if you become a famous and beloved author, your goblin will never be satisfied, so why should you listen? Why should you allow your goblin to shape your life?
You must make the decision to ignore the ceaseless chattering of your goblin, and instead, to embrace imperfection and work with it. The imperfection of a first draft will generate more ideas than a draft that’s closer to what you think it “should” be and offers opportunities for analysis and review that would be lost if your first attempt were flawless.
Besides, if you feel you need everything to be perfect, you’ll never be happy. I read once that a perfectionist isn’t someone who’s perfect, it’s someone who’s miserable because they can’t get it right. And the reason they can’t get it right? Perfection doesn’t exist. It’s a concept. An ideal. If you’re tweaking something until it’s perfect, you’ll be tweaking forever.
Don’t get it right; just get it written.
~ James Thurber
If perfectionism has made a home in your brain and is keeping you from even starting, unfortunately, I can sympathize. Believing that what we write needs to be perfect makes it harder – much harder – to produce anything at all. We want the first words we write, our first sentence, to be utterly impeccable, to be absolutely perfect, but that’s not what a first draft is for. What helps me most is simply reminding myself (sometimes over and over again) that accomplishing something – anything – is better than accomplishing nothing at all.
If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.
~ Margaret Atwood
Even if you don’t insist on perfection, you (and your goblin) may still have expectations that are no longer practical. See your situation realistically and become more flexible with the way you write and with what you produce. Throw away expectations – yours and anyone else’s. If expectations ever actually served you, they probably don’t anymore. Let them go.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Letting go of expectations is a process, one that’s more difficult for some than for others. In fact, for some people, it’s excruciating. It’s not going to happen overnight. But, if you keep the ideal of expectation-free writing at the forefront of your thoughts, if you remind yourself often that things don’t have to be perfect or meet an arbitrarily set standard, and if you approach writing cheerfully and with a sense of exploration and curiosity, eventually, bit by bit, you’ll feel lighter – and so will your writing sessions.
Sit down and write something less than perfect. Leave out commas, misspell things, choose overused words or phrases. Write something that you consider bad, and don’t fix it. Just read it over and file it away with your usual writing. Do this at least once a week. If you come up with an idea you want to pursue further, don’t edit the original; start over from scratch. Just remember that the great idea came from “bad” writing.
Call your writing an experiment and treat it that way. Give yourself permission to play around, to try new things, to reach beyond your usual boundaries, and if you fail, to try again. If it helps, temporarily title each piece something like “Experiment #256.” You can always come up with a real title later.
Free Your Words
If you tend to keep your work to yourself because it isn’t perfect, because your goblin tells you it’s not good enough, try steeling your courage and putting your ideas, your words, out there, anyway. Send a letter to the editor. Start a blog. Mail a card to a family member or old friend. Don’t keep your writing to yourself. Let it be read and know that, even if it has flaws, it’s better for your work to live out in the world than to languish in your desk drawer. Even if you don’t think it’s quite ready, make the choice to let others see it. Do this regularly, and the need to be perfect will slowly fade.
Freewriting is fast writing that doesn’t allow for time to evaluate what you’ve written or what you’re about to write. Mistakes in grammar, spelling, word choice, structure – you’ll make them all, and that’s fine. That’s what freewriting is about. You’re just getting ideas out of your head and onto the page. Begin each session with five or ten or twenty minutes of freewriting about anything at all, whether that’s tonight’s party you’re dreading, a brainstorm about your novel or a writing prompt you found on the Internet. Write without stopping until the alarm goes off. If you read it over and see something promising, go ahead and edit. Notice that you’re able to take your raw words and turn them into something more polished, and remember that that’s what writing and editing a first draft is all about.