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?
5 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
5 Challenges Facing Perfectionist Writers
Just what are the drawbacks to being a perfectionist writer? Let’s remind ourselves of a few of them:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.