Have you ever fixed—and deleted—the same sentence a twenty different times and still felt like you just . . . didn’t get it?
It happens to me all the time. So does staring at one word for so long that it ceases to look like a real word and becomes an abomination against humanity and therefore must be destroyed.
Those are bad days.
The frustrating thing about perfectionism is that is stems from a legitimate source. We want our stories to be the best that they can be, to catch the vision in our heads and portray it perfectly for the reader. We have so much detail, beauty, and downright cool stuff in our stories that doesn’t always make it onto the page on the first try, so why not edit until you get it right?
The trouble is, perfectionism, especially in your first chapter and your first draft, is so much more toxic than people admit.
In its toxic state, it fixates on the problem in a single chapter, or sentence, and immobilizes the writer from moving forward until that particular place is ‘perfect’.
Meanwhile, the remainder of the book molders away, untouched and unwritten.
How To Make It Happen
Writers, we’ve all been there. Whether you’re a seasoned writer or a beginner with a lot of vision and hope ahead of you, we all get caught in this trap from time to time. I did just recently and delayed the progress of my sixth book by at least a month because of it.
But, thankfully, I’ve gotten past it. Again. And I will continue to get past it in the future because I’m determined to be a writer who finishes my projects, not who gets trapped by perfectionism.
I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one wild moment of freedom.
You will never get it exactly right.
It took me so long to be okay with this. The vision in my head of my stories is full of glorious detail, heart-rending emotion, and background music for the full effect.
I cannot get that onto the page. Unfortunately.
What I can get onto the page is enough to guide the reader’s imagination. To let them fill in the blanks and see the story through their own eyes. All too often, writers don’t put enough faith in a reader’s imagination, and the result is panic and perfectionism because they can’t get that perfect vision onto the page.
No one is going to look at that sentence as long as you will.
Have you ever paused to really realize this? Writers obsess over their sentences, but readers flash through them with barely a pause.
Yes, a poorly written sentence will jerk the reader out of the story, but more often than not, a reader isn’t going to notice whether you used said or muttered—or cringe half as much as you do about the word ‘walked’. (Yes, that word makes me cringe. Don’t laugh.)
So let it go.
- Don’t edit along the way. Let your story flow, and worry about the edits later. The most important thing—especially in the first stages of a draft—is to get the story on paper. To let your characters breathe. Worry about the rest later.
- Have a catchphrase. Something to chant to yourself when a less-than-perfect chapter is behind you and you’re being tempted to go back and change everything. When I start having intrusive thoughts and struggling with perfectionism, I either tell myself that it’s fine and I’ll fix it later, or I simply say, “Sorry, I can’t actually hear you.” Don’t laugh. It totally works.
- Plan for a second draft. Know that you’re going to come back later and fix the mess you’ve left behind—and that you’ll be able to do that then because of the work you’re doing now. Writing takes persistence, it takes time, and it definitely, definitely takes a lot of rewrites. Save it for later and keep going now.
One Wild Moment Of Freedom
Perfectionism is a trap, and it still makes me cringe to think of how many beautiful stories and brilliant, thought-provoking books that it has swallowed completely.
Don’t let that be you.
Allow yourself to be wrong. Allow imperfection. Allow mistakes. Allow the mess. Without these, your creativity will shrivel and die.
So grit your teeth, allow the chapter you’ve been editing obsessively to be ‘good enough’, and move past it. Allow yourself one wild moment of freedom and see what comes of it. You never know . . . the result may be a completed book.
Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.
Have you struggled with perfectionism in the past? How did you work through it? Tell me about it in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing doubt and how it can drain the life from your story.