7 Ways to Combat being Paralysed by Perfectionism #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Welcome to another Author Toolbox Blog Hop post!

Confession: I’ve barely written a word on my work in progress this year. I’ve done lots of scribbling trying to get the plot right, but the words? Not happening.

It’s partly my Masters degree. Study is intense during term time, and I don’t have the energy to write. I also got caught up in trying to make my plot perfect. I can’t be the only one who’s struggled with perfectionism, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about how to combat it!

paralysed by perfectionism

What are the signs of perfectionism?

  • Having high standards, that are often impossible to meet.
  • Critical self evaluation, and finding it difficult to stop editing or call projects finished.
  • Rarely being happy with what you create, even if others think it’s awesome.
  • Trying to avoid failure, and seeing mistakes (anything less than perfection) as failure.
  • Finding it hard to relax, and always needing to work harder or complete tasks.

How perfectionism affects writing:

  • It leads to procrastination, unhappiness, and it makes writing harder. Worse, when things get tough perfectionists are tempted to quit to avoid failure.
  • It can stop you publishing. No matter how much editing you do your stories don’t seem good enough, and the thought of publishing makes you anxious.
  • It makes you obsess over details, trying to craft perfect sentences and taking hours to edit. This is demoralising, kills productivity, and makes it hard to finish anything.
  • It can stop you trying new genres or styles, because you fear failing at them.
  • It makes you hard on yourself. I criticised myself harshly for the words I haven’t written this year, and if you’re telling yourself you suck all the time you start to believe it.
  • It takes the fun out of writing. When you’re so focused on making something perfect, you’re often not enjoying the process.

So how do we move past perfectionism?

Learn to recognise it, and realise perfect is rarely possible:

perfect score
Your score doesn’t have to be perfect!

There’s nothing wrong with high standards, but aiming too high sucks the fun out of life. If you struggle to meet goals or deadlines, and often feel frustrated, anxious, or angry trying to meet them, you might be a perfectionist.

Accept that perfection is rarely possible, and write, and publish, anyway. Nobody’s perfect. First drafts are usually terrible, and it’s okay to make mistakes. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can move on to the next imperfect thing: AKA the second draft!

Lower your standards:

Perfectionists see success as a representation of their worth. If they don’t meet their goals, they’re hard on themselves. Don’t be. Be flexible. Goals are more like guidelines. Things change, plans go off the rails. You’re not less worthy if you set a 10000 word writing target for a month and write 500 words. Celebrate those words. It’s 500 more than you had before.

Don’t set unattainable goals. So what if Stephen King writes every day? Trying to keep up with others when your lifestyle/commitments are different will only make you miserable if you don’t succeed. Life’s not ‘All or nothing.’ It takes time to reach goals, and every step is progress. If anything but perfection isn’t good enough you’ll never relax. Choose OK over perfect.

fork in the road

Take breaks and reward yourself:

When writing isn’t working take a break. If I ran every day I’d get fatigued: Same with writing. Watch TV. Read. Exercise. Breaks aren’t a waste of time, they help you recharge.

List your accomplishments daily: Chapters read, research you’ve done for projects (or for your new kitten), words written, exercise, etc. Reward yourself for every item on the list.

Forget details during drafting:

Perfectionists are detail orientated. We get caught up in planning and struggle to accomplish tasks. Learn to let details slide when drafting. Does your character’s eye colour really matter to the story? Will the world end if you don’t decide this right now? Of course not.

Stop waiting for your plot to be perfect before you start writing. Practise free-writing: Write for ten minutes without editing, and make notes for later if you get stuck. If you keep procrastinating try writing on paper. You might make more progress away from online distractions!

Banish negative thinking:

Write a list of worries, fears, and doubts. Screw it up in a ball and throw it away. Challenge your inner critic, focus on positives, and change how you talk to yourself. Instead of beating yourself up for not writing, tell yourself you did your best and acknowledge the progress you did make. 

Tell yourself it’s okay to make mistakes, because telling yourself you suck will just make you feel bad. So what if you posted a story with a typo, or used too many commas? Nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes: Learn from them. Focus on what you love about writing, not on failure.

never a failure

Face your fears and share your writing anyway:

Don’t put off tasks because you’re afraid of not doing well enough or failing. Before you know it you’ll be panicked because the deadline’s near and you’ve made no progress. Make mistakes on purpose when drafting. Use routine: start writing sessions the same way to get in the zone. 

We’re often too close to our writing to be objective. Anything that could be re-worded, even slightly, can make it seem like the whole story is worthless. It’s never usually that bad, and an awesome writing group can help reassure you of that.

Stick to your commitments:

Make, and stick to, commitments to work on projects. Don’t spend hours feeling overwhelmed by the size of a project. Break it down into smaller tasks and tackle them one at a time. If your goals were over ambitious, that’s okay. If they work out, great! Any progress is better than none. Remember: Your goal should be to complete a task, not make it perfect.

Try the Pomodoro technique. List the steps needed to complete a task. Work for an hour: Spend 15 minutes on one step, then move to another one. After an hour, take a 5 minute break. You’ll be so busy trying to do as much as you can in 15 minutes you won’t have time for perfectionism.

Summary:

Being a perfectionist isn’t all bad. It often means you have high attention to detail and a desire to improve. The negatives can have a huge impact though, and it’s a hard habit to break. I had the most success with breaking down tasks and doing 15 minute timed sessions.

Remember: Your stories don’t have to be perfect. This isn’t the last book you’ll ever write, so stop waiting for your current project to be perfect. It likely never will be.

scales divider copy

Thanks for Reading!

Working on this post gave me a much-needed pep talk. I hope you found it useful too 🙂

Do you struggle with perfectionism? How do you deal with your inner demons? Recovering perfectionists: How did you ditch the habit? Chat in the comments!

This post is part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Next month I’m taking a break from the hop, as my assignment’s due that week. To read more posts from the Author Toolbox click here, or on the image below:

ATB

My past posts:
MA Creative Writing.
Work experience in Publishing at Penguin Books.
Lessons in Storytelling from TV and Film.

The new hop rules make it easier to participate: Participants can post every other month, and editors, cover artists, illustrators etc can join in.

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38 comments

  1. So you know your problem, you have the solution – but it’s hard to put instinct aside and act, huh?
    I’m not a perfectionist, Louise, on the contrary, i do the first draft without any concern for grammar, spelling or even much detail (However, i do add eye color and surroundings while i go, but i don’t stop to research if things aren’t already there in my head). But, my draft is a mess of shame and shudder worthy mistakes. Still, my paralysis happens once the draft is down and i need to start on edits and revisions. I procrastinate, i lose focus, i fall asleep. It takes me months to get a version eligible enough to send to the betas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, I’ve always been this way, so it’s hard to switch off wanting everything perfect!

      I’m in awe that you do your first drafts without stopping to make changes. Even when I have an outline I struggle to follow it. I always find problems with the plot and end up trying to fix them, stalling, and not moving forward.

      I think I’d be the opposite with editing though. I love it, because I’m finally at a stage where I get to make stories as good as they can be 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Raimey 🙂 Same! Plus, writing every day is hard. Half the time I have to force myself to write, and when I do that I don’t always enjoy it, which shows in the quality of my work. I’m not convinced it works!

      Like

  2. Great pep talk! I’m a perfectionist. I’ll admit it. And asking for help…? Very difficult. I played around with my last WIP an extra month just because I thought I could make it better on my own. But now it’s safely with beta readers and I have to focus on the next project instead of wondering if I shouldn’t have changed the way characters are formally addressed… again.

    Ronel visiting on Author Toolbox day: The One…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post! I can relate to downside of chasing perfection. It’s taken me several books to realize I should stop editing when I think the current novel exceeds the quality of the prior one. It’s an approach that should eventually yield my desired results.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An excellent post, Louise, with both the signs of perfectionism and ways to overcome it. One of the things that I’ve done is created a personal method for editing. Granted it involves about 40 drafts (lol) but once I’m done, I’m done. It isn’t perfect, of course, but I feel satisfied I’ve done my very best. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yeah, perfectionism is real. I don’t know if it’s an INTP thing or a mental health thing, but I’ve burned out on writing at least three times because of it (but I still keep coming back which I think is something to be proud about I guess :D)

    Liked by 1 person

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