Being labelled a perfectionist was once universally considered a badge of honour.
Countless highly successful people have proudly proclaimed their perfectionist tendencies, and it was long the classic “weakness-that’s-not-really-a-weakness” provided in job interviews.
But recent years have reassessed perfectionism as a strength.
And writers, it seems, are particularly prone.
Fear of producing less-than-perfect work is cited by many as the main cause of their writer’s block, leading sufferers to quit — sometimes before they’ve even begun.
This might suggest that perfectionism is incompatible with creative productivity, but it doesn’t have to be this way!
There’s already plenty of advice out there for overcoming perfectionism, but I want to take a slightly different approach.
Instead of ways to battle against your perfectionism, I’m here to suggest some ways you can harness that perfectionism and use it to improve your writing, both in terms of quality and quantity.
1. Let being goal-oriented drive you — in a healthier way
Perfectionists are usually highly goal-oriented and will work hard to reach targets.
This might sound like a good thing, but it can be a real hindrance when you’re only looking at the big picture.
If you set yourself a seemingly insurmountable goal from the outset, not hitting it “fast enough” can quickly zap your motivation.
So instead of setting yourself the goal of, say, writing an entire novel, try breaking that goal down into manageable chunks: first planning your novel, then writing the first chapter, then editing it (because let’s be real, what perfectionist is going to write a whole draft without doing any editing?) and so on.
This way, you can tick off smaller-scale accomplishments to motivate you day by day.
By treating each step of the journey as an accomplishment in itself, you’ll begin to enjoy the process more, making it easier both to get started and keep going — and to produce good work overall.
2. Use your high standards to discern among ideas
Throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks might sound like a perfectionist’s worst nightmare.
However, sometimes mud is the only way to get the ball rolling on ideas.
By putting your perfectionism on pause, you can get the best of both worlds. Here’s how it works.
Tell yourself that you must come up with five ideas before you’re allowed to start developing a single one — even if you’re struggling to get one idea off the ground.
Sounds impossible, right? Most of us are going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel by the fourth or fifth idea. But this is precisely the point.
By setting yourself the arbitrary limit of five, you know that these ideas aren’t going to be organic, and that most of them are going to be throwaway filler.
By creating a controlled (and private) environment for “failure” — that is, not getting something 100% perfect right away — and embracing that “failure” as part of the writing process, you can foster a space for yourself to experiment and take risks with incredibly low stakes.
So where does your “perfectionist self” come in?
Well, it gets to choose among all those ideas, and select which one you’re going to continue with.
So if you genuinely come up with five great ideas, hooray! You’re spoiled for choice.
But if you don’t, the fact that you’ve already set that expectation for yourself will prevent it from feeling like a disappointment.
By giving “perfectionist you” the choice among several options, you can use that exacting critical eye in a constructive way, rather than a destructive one.
Scrapping the burner ideas will allow you to scratch that “this is awful, I’m throwing it away” itch — minus the part where you’re left at square one again.
At the end of the day, you’ll be left with a solid idea, and that’s always the biggest hurdle as you’re starting to write.
3. Channel that energy into a different activity
Perfectionists tend to be pretty driven and hardworking as a species.
However, that drive can quickly turn to burnout if you don’t set parameters for it.
Instead of working days and days trying to perfect a single piece, or agonising over the same sentence for hours, try and channel your frenetic writing energy into different avenues.
One excellent way to do this is through writing sprints. Set a timer for 20 minutes and push yourself to write as much as possible within that time.
A productive sprint will give you the rush of a job well done, while still being a manageable and self-contained task.
After all, to quote Jodi Picoult, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
4. Embrace your inner critic when it’s time to edit
There is one time when being a perfectionist is a natural advantage, and that’s when it comes to critiquing.
A perfectionist’s meticulous attention to detail is very handy when you’re editing — especially for proofing and the finer points of spelling and grammar.
Read up on how to edit before you get started to make sure you’re focusing your efforts in the right direction.
But after that, let your perfection-seeking self run free!
A word of warning: you don’t want to over-edit (a classic mistake authors make).
There is such a thing as too much editing, not to mention that endless drafts can make your prose sound clunky and unnatural.
To sidestep this pitfall, consider setting yourself a time limit for the amount of self-editing you’re going to do before passing your work off to a beta reader or editor.
That way, you can make the most of your critical eye without going overboard.
5. Allow your desire to get better to improve your next project
At some point, every writer ought to (and should!) put their writing out into the world.
This can be especially stressful for a perfectionist, who may never be fully satisfied with their work.
But instead of letting that anxiety prevent you from ever putting yourself out there, try and embrace it as part of a growth mindset.
Even if you’re not 100% satisfied with your finished product, once you’re fairly confident you’ve done your best, just publish it.
You can use any dissatisfaction that you do have as a learning experience to fuel your next project.
That way, instead of experiencing the classic second book syndrome, you’ll be raring to produce even better work than before, equipped with the confidence that only a published piece of work under your belt (even if you weren’t completely happy with it) can give you.
Rather than holding you back, let perfectionism drive you in new ways!
So long as you’re kind to yourself and embrace the process, you can healthily channel your perfection-seeking tendencies — and reap the writing rewards.