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Three Tips for Writers Who Get Blocked by Perfectionism

October 11, 2015 by Diane

hand opening red curtain on white.

How many times does the heavy hand of perfectionism weigh down your writer’s hand, make mincemeat of your ideas, and damn the flow of words in some Godlike pronouncement of failure?

Perfectionism doesn’t belong behind the writer’s curtain. But it sneaks in. It pretends to be your critic, dressed up in tweeds to look like a teacher. But its only lesson is a yardstick.

Beware the impostor. Don’t heed its pronouncements. Don’t take it at its word. Learn to recognize its presence.

How?

Watch for these three signs:

1. Endless rewrites that don’t make the piece any better

You’ve been fishing on the shore for months and the vacation is over and you’re still fishing, the same fish, hooked to the same hook. You’re casting that fish into the water and reeling it back in over and over again, and it’s no longer flopping. It’s resigned. It’s dead. And still you fish. Let go, my friend. Let go.

Do you want it perfect, or do you want it done?

We learn with each new project. We get better as a writer the more we write anew. So let go, release this overfished fish to the river of the world, and move on. There are other fish, and you will become a better fisher-person the more you unhook from the old one one and cast off for the new.

2. Hitting a wall in the first draft 

First drafts are a playground. In a first draft you’re meant to swing up and down, to crawl through tunnels of discovery and shovel through sand sifting for treasure, to hoist yourself hither and yon and climb to new heights and take a slide now and then and get swept away, dizzy and discombobulated. It’s a playground. So play. Let the kid in you wear red sneakers and striped socks, and smell a little wild. First drafts are not the time to sit on the bench with pursed lips and ponder.

3. Writer’s block

There are ways to write, and there are ways to right. One is a process and the other a straightjacket. One is a discovery and the other a mandate. One is an exploration and the other a rule. If you’re blocked, perfectionism is the block that is crushing you.

One way to get that weight off your back is to write spontaneous prose. Jack Kerouac coined the term. This is writing “without consciousness” on an image, without regard to punctuation; quickly and with great excitement. “Blow as deep as you want—write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first—” By tapping into the subconscious we bypass the nag, the critic, the perfectionist, and learn to trust what comes.

Another way is to write badly. On purpose. Oh, the joy, the freedom! Purposely write purple prose, grammarly gaffes, and passages so pathetic that perfectionism has no choice but to disassociate from you.

To defeat perfectionism, we must allow ourselves to be imperfect, which we are, whether we choose to admit it or not. So rise up! Show your flaws! Admit your mistakes! I’ll go so far as to say: deliberately leave something imperfect in what you write, and see if anybody notices.

For example…

Did you notice, in my previous blog post, that I claimed to have hiked at an elevation of 95 thousand feet? This was not a deliberate mistake. This was a bonafide blunder.

“You might want to change 95 thousand to 95 hundred,” my pops pointed out. “You’d have to be a pilot to reach 95 thousand.”

Did other readers notice the goof? I have no idea. Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe you did notice, and shrugged it off with the assumption that to me, 95 hundred feet on a hiking trail felt like 95 thousand feet. Which was true. But not as true as the fact that I’m lousy at math, and distance, and I need a good editor.

And I’m not perfect.

Takeaways this week:

Perfectionism is like arm wrestling, but you’re the only player without arms. You’ll never win. So don’t play.

Get comfortable with being imperfect. Deliberately mispell a word, like I did just now. And leave it. You might have to wrestle with your spellcheck to leave it alone, but make the effort.

Finish a piece, rewrite it two, three, eight times (not fifty), then let it go. Send it out. Your job is to create. It’s your editor’s job to make it perfect enough.

To find out more about spontaneous prose, check out The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters.


34 Comments »

  1. gulara says:

    Great advice and timely too.

  2. Jason says:

    I was trying to think of the perfect comment, but took your excellent advice and let it go… Great post.

  3. Ben says:

    I like how you said that the first draft is a playground. What a wonderful way to look at it!

  4. Rebecca says:

    This is very good information. Thanks for the post.

  5. Deborah says:

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’m going to go face my computer and write, imperfectly and spontaneously.

  6. Eric says:

    I was thinking about the comment you made regarding spontaneous prose. I actually developed a game to use with my creative writing students to help them overcome just this issue. Check it out at http://forestwords.blogspot.com/2015/10/story-time.html.

  7. Hi Diane! I found your blog through the Writers Digest #platchal and Tweeted this excellent article. Your advice is spot on. It’s amazing how many beginners think a first draft is ready to be published. I always tell people that the purpose of a first draft is to get to The End. Then, in the editing of subsequent drafts, you craft the story or article or book. Thanks for the blog post!

    • Diane says:

      Thanks for sharing my post, and for commenting! Yep, unless you’re someone like Jack Kerouac, who could write a first draft in three weeks on a continual scroll of paper and have it turned into a classic novel, (and some would argue if On the Road was publishable), a first draft is anything but publishable.

  8. I like the three rules makes a clearer picture for me for sure. Thanks for sharing this one!
    Stay spooked for Halloween this October!

  9. Kat says:

    Ahhh… such good advice, and it comes at time when I really needed to read this! Thank you! I’ll be tweeting this article so other perfectionisty writers can read it! 🙂 @TheKatMcCormick

  10. Catherine says:

    Thank you for the tips. I’ve been blocked for a few days.

  11. Dalip Kumar Khetarpal says:

    When there’s endless scope and no end to improvement does not the word ‘perfection’ become redundant?

  12. M.W. Thomas says:

    Great post, Diane! I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis. And it sounds like your wilderness vacation did you some good. Your writing is vigorous anew. Great analogies! Oh, those words! Oh, those sentences and phrases! You set a good example. My goal is to write a very, very good piece, not a perfect piece. Perfection is not achievable. Very, very good is achievable. God is perfect, by definition, as it were. But perfection has no place on the terrestrial plane. Have I earned my tee shirt? Okay, I’ll stop.

  13. Joan says:

    Such a great pice of writing,Diane! I think this is one of your very best!! And so must others judging by the amount of comments this week. Job well done!! And I did notice the 95,ooo thing but shrugged it off…cuz I’m super bad with numbers! Ha ha and lastly…happy bday!

  14. Geralyn says:

    Yes! And I love that you mention Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. It’s his “exhaust your thought” mentality that gets the ideas on paper and the characters on playground swings. So glad I found your post!

    • Diane says:

      Thanks Geralyn! Glad to connect with a fellow scribe (and Kerouac fan).

      I love warming up for a writing session by reading a page or two of Kerouac. His writing blows my mind wide open.

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