Writers in the Storm

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April 29, 2016

What Does it Mean to be a Writer AND a Perfectionist?

Colleen StoryColleen Story

Google “perfectionism” and “writers” and you’d think perfectionism was a deadly disease.

Pages pop up offering tips for overcoming the “disorder,” warnings for avoiding the “dangerous” tendencies, and help for “dealing” with it.

Even the beloved Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) is quoted as saying:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life….”

I’m not one to question the wisdom of Anne Lamott, but that quote does make me wince a little. I mean, cramped and insane? Is it really that bad?

What if you are a writer who happens to be a perfectionist? Are you doomed to failure before you even start?

Why Do We Pick on Perfectionists?

We all have unique character traits, and they can have both positive and negative sides to them. Someone who is very detail oriented, for example, is likely to shine at carrying a project through to a successful conclusion, but may have a hard time seeing the bigger picture, or envisioning the overall end game.

On the other side of the coin, someone who is a brilliant visionary is likely to have difficulty remembering everything that needs to be done on a project, and without help, may miss something really important.

The problem (or blessing) is that most of us can’t change these inherent characteristics. Not completely.

Studies have shown this to be true. According to the New York Times, for instance:

“The largest and longest studies to carefully analyze personality throughout life reveal a core of traits that remain remarkably stable over the years…”

Paul T. Costa Jr., scientist emeritus at the laboratory of behavioral science at the National Institutes of Health, found similar results in his studies:

“It’s not that personality is fixed and can’t change. But it’s relatively stable and consistent. What you see at 35, 40 is what you’re going to see at 85, 90.”

So to be so hard on perfectionism, above all other traits, seems to be a little unfair. After all, the perfectionist can’t really stop being so. Not entirely. To ask someone to do that is like asking a visionary to swap and become detail oriented, or the detail oriented to suddenly take on the visionary attitude.

They can try, but they’re likely to end up frustrated, and worse, to lose confidence in their abilities as a whole.

Yet there’s no doubt that though there are some good sides to perfectionism (really!), it can also have a damaging, negative influence on a writing career.

So what’s a perfectionist writer to do?

IMG_01035 Positive Traits of Perfectionist Writers

It’s time to embrace what can be a positive trait in many ways. Let’s look at some of them:

  1. Perfectionists are always trying to make their work better: A perfectionist writer is likely to never be satisfied, and that can be a good thing, because it’s a powerful motivator. This writer is going to attend classes, read, and work to improve his writing—which means he’s likely to continue getting better.
  2. Perfectionists don’t let things fall through the cracks: Hyper-organized and hard working, perfectionists take care of the details and more. It’s their books that will get all the facts right, and their websites that will rarely be missing an important update.
  3. A perfectionist’s work is to be admired: Though it may take a perfectionist longer to get her work out, when she does, it’s often a product of beauty. When you read it, you can almost feel the care put into every sentence and word choice.
  4. Perfectionists are determined: Because they hold such high standards for themselves, perfectionists are often determined folks, motivated to do what they need to do to get where they want to go. They can endure a series of setbacks and keep fighting.
  5. Perfectionists make good editors: These writers actually enjoy finding shortcomings in their stories, because it’s fun to fix them. This is one of their strengths, and one they can excel at not only in their own work, but in that of other writers, as well, if they choose to offer their editing services.

I’m not the only one who believes that perfectionism, properly controlled, can be a good thing. Veteran journalist Alina Tugend, in her book Better by Mistake: the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, writes:

“Being a perfectionist isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it may mean you have very high standards and you often meet those standards. Those who have perfectionist tendencies without having those tendencies rule — or ruin — their lives are what psychiatrists call ‘adaptive’ perfectionists. They find it very important to do certain things in the right way, but this need doesn’t hinder their lives and can actually help them achieve great success….”

Ann MacDonald, writing in Harvard Health, agrees:

“Desirable aspects of this personality trait include conscientiousness, endurance, satisfaction with life, and the ability to cope with adversity. This helps explain why some perfectionists become corporate leaders, skilled surgeons, or Olympic champions.”

Yet it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. We know that perfectionism—like any character trait—has a dark side. The answer, though, is not to deny that we have this trait, or to feel badly about it. Instead, we need to embrace the positive side, become more aware of the negative, and learn some coping techniques for keeping it in control.

In other words, as Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, says in The Perfectionist’s Handbook, we need to become “better” perfectionists.

C+5 Challenges Facing Perfectionist Writers

Just what are the drawbacks to being a perfectionist writer? Let’s remind ourselves of a few of them:

  1. Everything takes longer: Because a perfectionist is concerned with getting things just right, she’s likely to take longer to do just about any project. That means her career may proceed more slowly, because her releases are few and far between.
  2. Writer’s block can be a common occurrence: If a perfectionist writer takes a break from his novel, he may find it more difficult than most to return. Just looking at the file reminds him of all its flaws, and he knows the sheer amount of work that will be needed to fix them.
  3. Criticism is hard to take…really hard: A perfectionist writer tends to define herself by her achievements. That makes accepting criticism of her work extremely difficult, because it feels like criticism of her, personally.
  4. Burnout is always just around the corner: If allowed to get out of hand, perfectionism can cause burnout in a hurry. Writers may find themselves burning the midnight oil to make sure everything is perfect, from their next novel to their next blog post to their next email, to the point that they eventually buckle under the demanding load. The result can be exhaustion and depression or even a serious illness.
  5. No accomplishment is ever enough: Perfectionists find it hard to celebrate their successes. They win an award and figure the competition wasn’t that stiff. They get a publishing contract and fret about marketing. They hit the bestseller’s list and worry they’ll never get there again. It can lead to a downward spiral and an unhappy life.

This side of perfectionism isn’t fun—ask those who suffer through it. Science-fiction writer Veronica Sicoe, for instance, admits to being a perfectionist, and talks about her challenges:

“It’s not easy being a perfectionist….Being unable to enjoy doing something without grading the result is not fun. Being unable to forgive oneself for making even tiny mistakes is not fun. Being unable to move on unless a project is beaten to death is really not fun. And on top of that, we’re experts at giving ourselves a guilty conscience over almost anything. Just make your pick, we’d be able to feel bad about how we’re doing it in ten minutes.”

So what’s a perfectionist writer to do?

7 Tips to Help You Become the Best Perfectionist Writer You Can Be

First, realize that you are a perfectionist. Here are some signs:

  • You’re hypercritical (of self and others)
  • You spend more time than needed on a task
  • You wait for the “perfect moment” to get started
  • You focus on the details (rather than big picture)
  • You have a hard time delegating

Next, work to embrace your perfectionism, but keep it from bringing you down by trying these tips:

  1. Find areas where you can let up: Perfectionists tend to want everything to be perfect. Try to identify projects that don’t matter as much, and practice allowing them to be sub-par. Write your blog posts in WordPress and hit “publish” even if it makes you nervous. Take a first draft of a story to your critique group as is—don’t allow yourself to “fix” it first. Keep practicing. You’ll probably never feel comfortable letting some projects go without being “perfect,” but you can get better at it.
  2. Realize that your standards are super high: Step back for a moment and realize that it’s likely that your standards are super high, and that there’s no real definition of “perfect” writing. Simply remembering that can help you go easier on yourself and your work.
  3. Realize that perfectionism makes you less productive: Studies have actually shown that perfectionists are less productive than others. When you’re agonizing over one project, you’re slowing yourself down and allowing your perfectionism to call the shots. Make productivity a goal, and let your perfectionism work on that for awhile!
  4. Practice fooling yourself: If your perfectionist tendencies make you likely to procrastinate, find ways to fool yourself into getting started. Tell yourself you’ll write for only five minutes, or that this isn’t the “real” draft, but just a “practice” one. Focus on the process of writing rather than the product. Come up with other ways to get around your perfectionist roadblocks.
  5. Separate your work from your inner self: You may never be able to do this completely, but the more you practice, the easier it gets. The key is to face your fear frequently. Get your work out there more often. Let the criticisms come raging in, and then remind yourself of your value in other ways. Spend time with friends and loved ones, get more involved in your hobbies, and work on some of your other strengths (such as your parenting, volunteering, caregiving, or cooking powers).
  6. When you feel tense, let go: When a perfectionist’s negative traits raise their ugly heads, the body usually responds, too. Muscles tense, and we become stiff and rigid. Notice how your body acts when your perfectionism is in full stride, and consciously relax. Bring your shoulders down, breathe deeply, and allow things to be as they are, reminding yourself that everything is okay.
  7. Make failing a game: Perfectionists fear failure. They work to get everything just right so they don’t.  Make it a game to see how many mistakes you can commit. Not by faking it, but by trying new things more often. Send out more submissions. Query more agents. Try out more types of writing that are unfamiliar to you, like poetry, flash fiction, or something in a different genre than you’re used to. Submit your work to more contests. Gradually, you may start to have more fun with the whole thing, and failure won’t seem like such a big deal. You may also surprise yourself at the successes you experience!

Bottom line: Realize that your perfectionism is probably not going to go away, and that’s okay. In many ways, it can benefit your career. Limit its potential destructiveness by becoming more aware of how it affects you, and practice coping techniques that help.

As freelance editor Lisa Munro says:

“In the end, managing perfectionism is a life long process; it requires that we tackle difficult emotions….We need to believe that we’re good enough. Not perfect, but good enough.”

Do you have more tips for encouraging the positive aspects of perfectionism, or limiting the negative? Please share them with our readers.

Additional Sources

Daniel Goleman, “Personality: Major Traits Found Stable Throughout Life,” New York Times, June 9, 1987.

Melissa Dahl, “How Much Can You Really Change After You Turn 30?” Science of Us, November 24, 2014.

Therese J. Borchard, “Good Perfectionism Versus Bad Perfectionism,” PsycheCentral.com, May 16, 2011.

Colleen M. Story writes imaginative fiction and is also a freelance writer, instructor, and motivational speaker specializing in creativity, productivity, and personal wellness. Her latest novel, Loreena’s Gift, was released with Dzanc Books April 12 2016. Her fantasy novel, Rise of the Sidenah, is a North American Book Awards winner, and New Apple Book Awards Official Selection (Young Adult). She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers and other creatives. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.


29 comments on “What Does it Mean to be a Writer AND a Perfectionist?”

  1. Amazing blog, Colleen - one that will hit home with one WITS blogger I know (you know who you are). I got a bunch of tough traits, but I thank my stars that this isn't one of them.

    My daughter is, and she has one problem you didn't mention...she doesn't get started, because she's afraid to do it wrong. She won't risk being seen as a fool (NOT my issue, as everyone knows ;), and so, misses the self-satisfaction of achievement and feeling proud of herself for trying, and sometimes winning!

    Hugs to all the perfectionists out there...

    1. Thanks, Laura! Yes, it's true—the goal to make it perfect can stop us from getting started. We have to get used to worrying that it won't be just right and plunge in! Yes, perfectionists need encouragement above all—lower your standards. It will be okay! :O)

    2. If you weren't talking to me, Laura, there is MORE than one of us... Yikes.

      I do a lot of that "fooling myself" to push through. Without that, my writing friends and group sprints, I'd never get through it.

  2. Okay, I am A PERFECTIONIST and I am a WRITER. There I've said it, feeling a bit like an alcoholic standing before the group at an AA meeting. At 80 (!), yes I am that age and still writing, I have managed to get around many of those roadblocks mentioned above. But some I will never conquer. That's okay. I will never stop writing of this I am sure. Never quit editing even as I write, never be able to let things go easily because I feel they just haven't been checked enough. I am a perfectionist. I am a writer. Great blog, thanks.

    1. Ha ha. Love that statement. Stand proud! Yes, I agree—you can't stop being a perfectionist, just learn to work around it. Sounds like you've gotten pretty good at it! Thanks. :O)

  3. There is a very specific type of person I see in writing classes,etc, who is not only a perfectionist, but is truly paralyzed by fear of not measuring up. But if you don't have the courage to begin and to finish and to revise, aka begin again . . . how on earth can you become a writer? It's really paralyzing fear of failure combined with perfectionism, that is the true problem. Perfectionism alone serves many aspects of writing well.

    1. Thanks, Kelly! Yes, it's true--and I think the perfectionism is what causes the fear. That thinking that whatever we produce won't be good enough—won't measure up with our expectations, which we believe are similar to the expectations of those around us (even though they are always much higher). I think perfectionists have to have perhaps even "more" courage to overcome and commit to action.

  4. I'm a perfectionist, but I'm not going to berate myself for striving to be better. Part of the challenge, the excitement of writing, is endeavoring to improve--to boldly go where other authors have tried to go before! I prefer Hemingway's quote: "We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." It doesn't mean you shouldn't keep trying; it means to stop beating yourself up every time you think you've fallen short...

    A wonderful, post, Kelly. Pinned & shared. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Linda! Yes, your last line exactly! A good quote to print out and pin above the desk. :O)

  5. I like your tip #7, make failing a game. I think that works for us, in that it gets us perfectionists to ease up a little and not be so hard on ourselves. Plus, it gives that burst of release that comes from trying something new, the unknown...kind of gets the endorphins going to challenge ourselves in a new way.

    Great column. Thanks for this Colleen.

    1. Yes, Lisa—I find a little "what the hell" attitude helps with that! I'll fail and fail again! It's great! (ha) Thanks for reading. :O)

  6. *Raises hand* "Guilty!" Ack! It's a burden I live with. And what you wrote Colleen is the reason why I blogged about Perfectionism just this past week. (The Battle of Consistency vs. Perfection) I chose consistency since as a perfectionist, it is one way to move forward without focusing on the perfection. At least I hope so. That is my goal anyway. lol. But as James Clear, a Human Behaviorist recommends, "in order to be consistent, we need to plan for failure." And I found it interesting that both of you brought up failure because failure to a perfectionist is enemy number one! Yet, if we can learn to accept our failures, then I think we have a chance to move onward towards success. At least that's what I told my readers. lol. Goodness, we're all a work in progress. Lovely post Colleen! 🙂

    1. That's some synchronicity isn't it, Karen? I like your thoughts about consistency—just keep going at it no matter what. Easy to say, not so easy to do. But helps to know we're not alone in working with this trait! :O)

  7. When I saw this post I knew it was written just for me. Thanks, Colleen, for giving me coping mechanisms.

  8. I'm super guilty. But I have always taken pride in it. It does hinder me in that I do take all criticism personally and it hurts real bad. Cried a lot alone and that helps but I still hesitate to offer up any thing I do for critique. Contest I hate um. I started with the state fair in oil painting, ceramics, needle work, loom work etc. but I had to wait until all the judges best friends quit entering. Everyone knew it and told me it would be that way so I entered until the click finally faded away. Then I took all Blue Ribbons and Best of Show for 2 years and stopped entering. I only entered one writing contest and found the same click thing. So I decided instead of entering and going through the same thing I would just not enter contest. What hurts worst is not the loosing but the people who put up with it and warn new comers it's just the way it is. The disappointment in people you looked up to is hard to get over. Only 5 people have ever seen any of my writing. One of those only saw 1 ms and will never see another.
    Another delaying technic I suspect. I have no trouble accepting critique from any of the 4 of them because I trust them. I'm going to have a hard time finding an agent I'm sure. But this is something I've always lived with. Never have had a "at a girl" from most of family. Awards out the gizoo but most just could not accept that I could do it. Maybe one of those "don't get above your raisin" things I guess.
    I keep saying I'm going to stop posting unless there is no whining in it. Didn't make it again.

  9. Colleen this piece is terrific. You hit so many nails on the head. I hope it helped many of us PW's. I didn't realize there were so many of us. Thanks for the encouraging words I diffidently took them to heart. Will try the fixes and see if any help me. So glad I found this and I will be buying some of the books recommended.

    1. So glad you found some value in the post. Sounds like you've been struggling with this for awhile. I've learned we have to create our own "atta-boys," and many more than we may think we need, especially if we're perfectionists. Self-compassion has been found to actually increase productivity—the more compassionate we are with ourselves (as we would be to friends), the more we are able to get done. Wishing you more acceptance for all successes and failures in the future!

  10. Comfort for Colleen?

    Don't let the bastids gitcha down. All real writers being egomaniacs, if you're not a perfectionist, you ain't no writer.

    Believe it.


  11. Thank you so much for this. Nuts! I'm on the list of traits for perfectionist. I had the feeling I was before, but now it's confirmed. I thought I was always overthinking my projects. And I probably still am. I'm concrete and worry all the time. I blame it on Inferiority who has come to live at my house since I went to college. I need to move faster or I'll never keep up and send out my memoir about attending college as a mother of five.

    Thanks again for the tips. I've shared this post on social media!

    1. Wow—college and five children. I'm sure that was a challenge! Yes, please get that story out, Victoria, as I'm sure there would be people who would enjoy it. Hope some of the tips here help you to push forward. Good luck and thanks for sharing!

  12. Great post and very insightful. I'm a perfectionist and proudly wear the badge. It doesn't mean we don't make mistakes, we're just harder on ourselves when it happens. Another important quality of a perfectionist is that we LISTEN. Listening is a skill that many people find difficult but perfectionists are excellent at it. Probably because we want to continue to learn, improve and make progress. Thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Nicola! I hadn't thought about the listening but you're probably right. Nice that you pointed out another positive side to it! :O)

  13. The 5 Challenges Facing Perfectionist Writers - wow, felt like I was reading into a mirror, there. But I've made a lot of progress in separating my work from my inner self, and I feel like I'm getting to the point where I don't care if people don't like it because I do. Thanks for this, though, it helps to know that this is a thing, not just my thing. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Walt! Love your comment—don't care if people don't like it because I do. Great philosophy!

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