Is Perfectionism Undermining Your Writing?

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Are you the type of writer who has to keep editing your work-in-progress because you believe it’s never good enough? Is your waste basket overflowing with crumpled pages because you thought the opening of your story was garbage? Are you afraid to show your work to others because you think it isn’t good enough to be shown?

If this sounds like you, read on.  

As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you that striving for perfection is overrated. Perfection is a goal you can never achieve. Instead, it might be more beneficial to strive for excellence.

How do you define ‘perfection’?

Why is perfectionism unhealthy? “Because it’s a vague standard,” writes Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice blog. No one really understands what it means. It also can zap the fun and enjoyment out of writing, Reid says.

Try this exercise. On a sheet of paper, write your definition of perfection. What does a perfect piece of writing look like? How does it feel when you read it?

I’m willing to bet that once you attempt to define it or draw a picture of perfection that you realize there is no satisfactory definition. Whatever concept you come up with is likely to be fuzzy and indefinite. That’s because the concept of perfection is vague and subjective. No two people will draw the same picture of it or define it the same way.

How perfectionism holds you back

To understand how perfectionism may be holding you back, ask yourself: what drives your need to be perfect? Is it to please that person from your past who was overly critical of your efforts? Even if they’re no longer around, their words may ring in your ears. If so, stop looking at yourself through their eyes, and envision yourself as the writer you want to be.

Or perhaps you want to emulate the success of a particular acquaintance whose work you have always admired. Gosh, you think, I’d love to write just like them. But each time you sit down to write, the words come out all wrong. You keep starting your piece over and over because it doesn’t read like anything so-and-so would write. If this sounds like you, stop comparing yourself to others. You will always come out second best.

The truth is perfection is an illusion. Perfection doesn’t exist except in your own psyche and imagination. Nobody is born perfect, nor can it be achieved with hard work and talent. Stop killing yourself to be something you’re not. Further, you will never write like anyone else, so stop trying. Instead, forge your own path on your own terms.

How to work with your perfectionist tendencies

If perfectionism is interfering with your writing efforts, it’s time to take control of it (rather than allow it to control you). There are ways to work around perfectionism in your writing. Here are a few suggestions:

* Use freewriting to get into the flow of writing. Every morning before you begin your day, write for five or ten minutes without stopping. Allow the ideas to flow from your brain to your pen, no matter what they are. Don’t stop to judge or critique them. Just keep your pen to the paper and don’t lift it up until your timer goes off. You may surprise yourself at how much you are able to write in a short amount of time.

* Acknowledge that your piece isn’t perfect – and publish it anyway. Be willing to publish your work even if it isn’t perfect, says Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog.  Every author has published stuff that they knew wasn’t perfect. That’s actually good news for the rest of us toiling away on our masterpieces. It means your writing only has to be publishable, a more modest goal.  

* Name your critic. In fact, put a face to them too. Identify the one person whose voice you hear when you critique your work, Penn says. Acknowledge their presence, then quickly and swiftly banish them from your work space. Once those critics are out of the picture – and out of your head – you can reclaim your space so you can write more freely.

* Recognize that no writer is perfect. Every writer struggles with self-doubt at times. You are not alone in the way you feel. This is especially true if you’re new to writing. Realize that your initial efforts will not be very good. That’s okay, because you are learning along the way. But by writing every day, or as often as possible, your writing will improve.

* If you struggle with over-editing your pieces out of fear that your work isn’t perfect, try putting a cap on your editing passes. For example, I give myself three revision passes for my projects. Three revisions is more than enough to help me figure out where my story is headed and whether it worth pursuing further. If that doesn’t work for you, have a trusted friend or colleague review your work with you so you stay on track.

* Remember that first drafts always stink. They’re never very good, but you can still find a few nuggets of good writing within them. Think of first drafts as brain dumps – the process of dumping the overload of ideas piling up inside your brain. Use the best ideas for your stories, then discard the rest.

Remember that perfectionism can hurt you more than help you. So do what you can to release your deeply-felt need to be perfect before it derails your writing dream.

Making Collaborations Work

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I’ve been reading about collaborations a lot lately. I have never collaborated on a creative fiction project myself; I’m far more comfortable getting my own ideas published. But for many writers and creative professionals, collaborations are a means to expand their business opportunities.

The truth is, writers and other creative professionals have been joining forces to create new innovative products for years. Sometimes these collaborations work; many times they don’t. There are numerous reasons why writers would want to seek collaboration on a project. They may want to experiment with a different genre of writing but don’t have the experience or the confidence to pursue it. A collaborator can bring that perspective.

Another reason for collaboration may be the size of the project. It may be too large for one person to handle on their own. In that case, a collaborator can share the responsibility — and the rewards. Yet another reason is the challenge it brings. Many writers may relish the thought of working with another person because they feel the process makes them a better writer.

If you decide to pursue a collaboration, keep an open mind. It’s important to be open to new ideas and not get locked into your own.

According to Joanna Penn at the Creative Penn blog, it helps to have a clear idea from the start what kind of project you and your collaborator are working on and to set parameters for making progress. Lack of proper planning can derail the project before it even gets off the ground. You both need to be on the same page to move the project plan forward.

Here are a few words of advice from writers who’ve been part of successful collaborations.

1. Work with someone you already know. When you know someone, you are familiar with their strengths as a creative, their personality, their ideas, work habits and more. It’s much easier to get on the same page when you know who you are dealing with. While it’s not a requirement, it can be helpful to work with someone you already know. When you don’t know the other person as a writer or collaborator, you have to start from ground zero in getting to know how they work, and more important, whether you can work with them at all. It might be helpful to start on a small project like a play or novella before embarking on a larger project.

2. Start slow and plan you project ahead of time. Don’t begin writing right away. Plan out what you want to create, though you don’t need every detail outlined. Outline what each of you will be responsible for during the project. A simple sketch with your story ideas and characters might be sufficient. Once you start writing, keep working at a steady pace. Put a schedule in place with incremental deadlines and a final publication deadline. Having a clear plan of action with deadlines can keep you and your collaborator on track to meet your goals.

3. Be clear about the story concept. Define your genre. Is it historical fiction, an international thriller or a fantasy series for young adults? Penn says it can be tempting to do a mash up of different genres to please different audiences, but that can result in a confusing product. Instead, choose one and do it well. When you focus on one specific genre, it will be easier to market it to consumers.

4. Communicate clearly and often. You may be working at opposite ends of the country, so it’s important to have frequent communication to update each other on progress, says writer Jeff Somers in Writer’s Digest magazine. Set aside time each week or every other week to check in with each other to see how the work is progressing and resolve any problem areas before they derail the project. 

There are other important tips to consider. 

1. Be respectful of each other. You each bring something special to the table – your skill level, writing experience, etc. If you find yourself encroaching on the other person’s space, take a step back and allow them room to work their own magic. Likewise, if you find they are encroaching on yours, politely ask that they give you time to work your own writing magic. There’s no room for egos when you collaborate.

2. Embrace different ways of working even if they make you feel uncomfortable. The new processes may actually help you see past writing problems that have stumped you before. Learning new processes through collaborative efforts may even help you become a better writer.

3. Speak up if the project seems to stall or doesn’t seem to be going well. Don’t let resentment simmer in the background or boil over, Somers says. Address issues as soon as they arise.

4. Take time to celebrate milestones and successes. When you complete that first book in your fantasy series, or get that contract, celebrate that success. Then get back to work. Most important, have fun.

5. Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you find you cannot work with this person or a stalemate has occurred, walking away from it may be your best option. You may have to weigh the pros and cons of doing so. For example, if you received an advance from a publishing company, you may have to find a way to complete the project. Honor your obligations. But if you don’t have any restrictions and this is simply a creative experiment that clearly is not working out, by all means, walk away and chalk it up to experience.

Remember, for all the success stories about collaborations that fill the Internet, there are still many others that have failed. In any partnership or relationship, sometimes you have to set aside your ego to let the relationship flourish. The same is true for collaboration. If you enter it with the right mind set, the end result may be a product you can be proud of.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear about them.