It would be funny if it didn’t hurt so much.
You strive for that perfect story or the perfectly realized character. You exhaust yourself studying plot techniques and character development. But when the time comes to write, you freeze.
Because the writing didn’t live up to your expectations. You know it isn’t quite there yet. And you think I can write better than this. I know I can. Only now you’re too tired from the stress and disappointment to actually write.
“It’s okay, I’ll try again later.”
Until later never comes. And your last attempt at that perfect story goes into the file. You know the one. It’s where you hide all the other half-written stories and scene snippets you couldn’t resist writing.
Because the passion for writing is there. Why else would you keep torturing yourself? Why would you keep thinking about writing and wishing you could write if you weren’t a writer?
It isn’t just you. Perfectionism lurks behind many a writer’s secret anxiety.
And the worst part is our perfectionism secretly thrills us, even as it blocks us from realizing our writing dreams. Because being a perfectionist has its perks, doesn’t it?
Too bad writing isn’t one of those times.
The reality is, perfectionism isn’t worth it when it comes to writing. Because rather than make us write better, perfectionism stops us writing at all. And how can we publish if we don’t write?
So here’s how to know if perfectionism is behind your writers block. And how to keep it from killing your writing dreams.
17 Signs Perfectionism is Killing Your Writing Dreams
#1 You’re Hyper-Critical of Other Writers
Do you bash other writers for their typos and bad grammar?
When we’re highly critical of other writers, we assume that others are highly critical of us too. And that puts too much stress and pressure on our writing. So if you find yourself focused on another writers’ mistakes, take a breath. Because it takes courage to put our work out there when we’re still learning our craft.
And when someone judges you for your writing skills, they’re in the wrong. Not you. Same goes if you’re the one who’s judging.
#2 You Feel Stupid When Another Writer’s Story Is Better Than Yours
“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.” – Anne Lamott
It’s okay if you’ve felt this way. You’re only human. Just don’t let it hold back your writing. Remember that another writer’s success reveals what’s possible for you.
When writers around you write well or get published, your success is that much more likely. That’s because success isn’t a limited resource. Success breeds success. So stick around it, and keep writing. It will happen to you too.
Anne Lamott has a lot to say about this in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book that many a writer swears by. Pick up a copy to get writing.
#3 You Spend More Time Reading about Writing Than Actually Writing
It’s easy to focus on what you don’t know when it comes to writing. Especially if you’re a perfectionist.
But if you feel like you can’t write because you don’t yet have the skills, your perfectionism has outgrown its usefulness. Because writing crap is how you get better at writing. Yes, books on plot and character development have a place in your writer journey. But nothing will improve your writing like practice.
So for everything you read about writing, try the technique out in a quick paragraph. It’s an easy way to even out your ratio of writing versus reading about writing.
#4 Your Writing Skills Are Far More Advanced Than The Rest of Your Critique Group’s
If you do most of the work in your critique group and aren’t getting much in return, ask yourself why you’re sticking around. Be honest with yourself here. Wanting to help other writers is fine but not if that means holding yourself back.
If you let perfectionism tell you you have to be the best writer in the group, then you’re going to have trouble finding writers to learn from. Maybe it’s time to move on?
Aim for a critique group where your writing skills land in the middle. That means half the writers are more skilled and half are less skilled than you. This way you’ll solidify what you know when you teach writers whose skills are less developed. You’ll also benefit from the guidance of more advanced writers.
This is how writers improve.
#5 You Get Mad or Hurt When Someone Points out Ways to Improve Your Writing
This is a red flag that you see your writing as an extension of yourself. But you are not your story.
Your story is no more than the passion you have for writing (good on you!) + your skill level at the time you wrote it. The next story you write will be better. And you’re still a writer when your writing skills aren’t yet where you want them to be.
Since you are 100% going to write a better story next time, why not get the crap out of the way now? You’ll get to the good stuff faster if you do.
#6 You Think Your Story Has to Be The Next Great American Novel To Be Worth The Effort of Writing It
You’ve heard of those writers who made it big with their first novels? Yeah, those stories are lies. The truth is, those first-time published novelists weren’t really first-time writers.
I’m serious. So Ernest Hemingway made it big with his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises. Yes, it was his first novel. No, he wasn’t a writing newbie when he wrote it. Before his novel debut, Hemingway published a slew of short stories. He’d also honed his writing skills as a reporter for Dateline: Toronto. So by the time he’d finally published that debut novel, Hemingway was already a writing pro.
The one thing you can know for sure is that a novel can’t become great if it doesn’t exist. So write the damn thing!
#7 You Compare Your Early Writing Efforts to an Established Author’s Published Work
Did your second grade teacher give you an F when you couldn’t write a master’s-level thesis? Of course not. So why would you expect a perfectly-executed story to flow onto the page when you’re writing a first draft?
Give yourself an A+ for performing well at the level you’re at now. If that means you get an A for showing up to your desk and writing 50 words, good. Wrote a paragraph using that new plot technique you found online? Great.
Besides, published work goes through many a draft and expert before you see it on the shelves. So don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s finished product.
#8 Story Ideas Spring Up and Multiply When You’re Away from Your Desk But When It’s Time To Write, You Freeze Instead
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’” — Maya Angelou
First off, this is totally normal for writers. So welcome to the club. It’s okay to feel stressed out at this stage. The blank page. The blinking cursor. It’s intimidating even for pros.
Author, Isabel Allende says to just show up until it happens. And writing really is as simple as that. Sort of.
The harder part is that you have to be open to sitting through the discomfort until your mind relaxes enough to work. So try this. Observe yourself and your anxiety as though observing a character. It helps to distance yourself from the emotion long enough to get comfortable with it.
#9 You Secretly Love Being a Perfectionist Because It’s the Reason Your Work Turns out So Well
Yeah, that’s not just you either. I love being a perfectionist. Not because it stresses me out. Or because it makes it hard to write. I love being a perfectionist because it often means the quality of my work is higher. It drives my ambition to be a writer. It drives my ambition to write well.
But when perfectionism gets in the way of writing, it’s time to set it aside. You have to be willing to look stupid. You have to be willing to suck at writing if you want to get better.
#10 You Procrastinate When It’s Time To Sit Down and Write
I covered a few ways to beat procrastination and finally finish your story earlier this week. Another tip?
Password protect your story drafts. Tell yourself you’ll never show it to anyone. Maybe you won’t. Maybe this draft is one of the many crappy first drafts you’ll write and never share.
#11 You Thought “Why Bother Writing It Then?” When You Read That Last Tip
Perfectionists tend to be all-or-nothing thinkers. You think if the story you’re writing now isn’t “the one” then there’s little point in writing it. But this is when your perfectionism has gotten out of hand, writer.
Think of it this way.
Each day you don’t write something, you’ve failed. Harsh? Yep. But it’s my job to shake you out of your comfort zone and get you on the write track. And I want you to remember—to really, really remember—that writing nothing is worse than writing something that sucks.
#12 You’ve Deleted Your Writing in Anger or Torn Up Your Pages
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
It’s tough to improve your writing skills if you notice only what you did wrong. Yet many a perfectionist does just that. So try the feedback sandwich instead. Heard of it?
The feedback sandwich is a simple but powerful approach to feedback. It’s when you offer one critical piece of feedback between two positives.
This approach does more than protect feelings. It keeps your focus on the big picture. Because knowing what you did right in writing is just as important as knowing where you need to improve.
Use this approach when you edit your personal work. Did you find the perfect word for a concept? Did you pull off a perfect turn of phrase? Is your character consistent in any two places? Then pat yourself on the back. And keep writing.
#13 You’d Rather Submit Nothing To a Critique Group Than a Story That Isn’t Your Best
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Have you ever gotten a B on an assignment and thought it was no better than an F? I have. Second place is the first loser and all of the that, right? I get it.
It’s really quitting that’s the worst kind of failure. And regret will hurt more than losing. I don’t want that to happen to you. So this is your new mantra, okay?
Write the story. Separate yourself from the story. Critique the story. Write a better story. Repeat.
#14 You Forget To Celebrate The Small Success, Like Starting A New Story or Writing a Paragraph
Focus on effort, not results. I know, I know. Your whole body is rebelling, isn’t it? It’s like I just gave you a trophy for participation. You’re thinking that mindset is for losers and new age hippies.
Sorry, writer. Whoever taught you that was soooo wrong. Because the people who focus on effort are the most resilient, self-mastered people. They try new things, and engage more fully. That’s why they succeed with ease.
So steal their technique. Take more pride in the seeds you plant than what you reap. That’s the key to success.
#15 You Feel Like You Never Get Enough Writing Done in One Sitting
Be proud of time in. If you worked for 30 minutes and only got 30 words, accept that as progress. Practice pride.
#16 You Feel Like You Can’t Write If You Don’t Know Where The Story Is Going
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow
Writing is a process. It doesn’t spring fully formed from your mind like some Greek god. You build it, word by word. Then you delete those words and write better words. A thousand times until it’s done.
There is no room in this process for getting it right the first time. There are simply too many steps. So release control, and trust the process.
#17 You Prefer Having Written To Actually Writing
This is not always a bad thing. Writing is catharsis. Writing is hard work. Both are great reasons to love the relief and sense of accomplishment that comes from having written.
But if you find that you dread the writing process more often than not, maybe you’re taking it too seriously. Try to remember why you wanted to write in the first place. And use the techniques throughout this article to achieve that state of peace during the writing process.
You may just find you like writing again.
Did I Miss Anything?
Share any tips I missed in the comments. Your insights may help another writer get through the struggle.
And, as always, happy writing.
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