Thursday, May 20, 2010

Perfectionism: A Love/Hate Relationship

Many writers have a dash of perfectionism in their souls. That’s a good thing for a professional writer. If you don’t have some urge toward perfectionism, you may end up turning in sloppy work. If you turn in sloppy work too often, you won’t be a professional writer for long. Perfectionism isn’t always your friend though. There are times it can become your enemy just as much as your ally. Here are some ways perfectionism can work both for and against you in your writing.

When Perfectionism Works against You: Procrastinate Yourself out of Business

Perfectionism is one of the two main causes of procrastination. (The other is hoping the work will go away if you ignore it long enough.) If you’ve never completed a writing project of any length, you may not realize you are a perfectionist. In fact, if you’ve never completed a writing project of any length, you are almost certainly a perfectionist. If you are a perfectionist, you may recognize some of these symptoms. Perfectionists will procrastinate because they:

  • Don’t feel at the “top of their game” right now…they’ll do it later, when they feel better.
  • Don’t feel this is the optimal time or place to write…they’ll wait for a time with fewer distractions or inconveniences so they can do a better job.
  • Need to let the idea gel a bit longer (to perfection)…like another two years.
  • Won’t start something because they don’t feel they can do it perfectly…I can never be a Steinbeck, so why bother?
  • Find lovely rabbit trails to keep themselves distracted from their main task…to do a really perfect job on this, I need to research that and complete such-and-such first.

Does any of that sound familiar? Then you’re a perfectionist procrastinator.

While I’m sure there’s lots of psychoanalysis we could do here, the only real cure is to just write. That’s all. Just write. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect and start spitting words out on the page. You can always go back and edit. First, you need to conquer your perfectionism and simply do your job.

And that leads us to…

When Perfectionism Works for You: Polish Until It Shines

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a first draft full of flaws, few editors—or readers—appreciate a final version that they can’t decipher. Once you’ve spewed verbal mayhem all over the page or screen, it’s time to go back and edit until it shines. This is where perfectionism works for you. A person who doesn’t have an eye for detail will do an adequate job. The perfectionist is able to use his mental fine-tooth comb to sweep out the bugs…the adverbs, the split infinitives, the clichés and weak description and all the other little critters that give editors the creepie-crawlies. This is the time to give your perfectionism free-reign. Only one caveat: at some point, editing and polishing have to end. If they don’t, you’ve reverted back to procrastination. So, maybe I should say, give your perfectionism free reign with a deadline. Yes, that’s better.

I could say a lot more on the subject. Instead, I’ll let myself consider this post finished, and direct you to a little essay I found quite helpful and entertaining, by Stanford philosophy professor John Perry. Here it is:

Enjoy and…write! Today!

1 comment:

Lobug said...

I love this! It is so true. I have been procrastinating on some patterns.....because I am a perfectionist- that's what I'll claim. Although the truth is, it's probably b/c I get so distracted I forget.... ;)